Get the ZZZs You Need
Everyone has an occasional night of poor sleep. But if it often takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night or you wake up frequently during the night and have a hard time going back to sleep, you could have a sleep problem that needs attention.
“Adequate sleep is as essential to good health as exercise and proper nutrition, and if you’re short of sleep, you can suffer physical, mental and emotional problems because of it,” says Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Learning what sleep does for you and how to get more and better-quality sleep can help improve your present and future well-being.
Sleep and health
“Sleep deprivation, or an accumulated sleep debt caused by sleeping fewer hours than you need night after night, puts people at a variety of risks that include impaired immune function, car accidents, reduced memory, even unhappiness, and mistakes at work,” says Dr. Wolfson.
In addition, ongoing research has tied lack of sleep to an increased risk for depression, anxiety, metabolic disorders, and obesity. Recent studies also have found people with sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, are at risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and accidents.
Even occasional sleep problems can increase stress and the risk for car accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that annually more than 100,000 auto crashes in the United States are fatigue-related.
It may seem like you have no control over the quality of the sleep you get, but, in fact, you may be doing things that work against getting the rest you need.
In addition, health issues, such as pain, asthma, restless legs syndrome, and back problems, also can contribute to lack of sleep. So can some medications, such as decongestants, steroids and some medicines for high blood pressure, asthma or depression.
Secrets of good sleep
You can take steps to shift your body and mind into more beneficial sleep habits:
Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, comfortable and cool. “Making your bedroom a sanctuary conducive for sleep can make a significant difference in the quality of sleep you get,” says Dr. Wolfson.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. Doing so helps keep your internal “circadian clock” in balance, which signals your body to sleep and wake in a regular pattern.
Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine that might include reading a book, listening to soothing music or doing something else you find relaxing. “A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime helps separate your sleep time from activities that can make it more difficult to fall asleep or remain asleep,” says Dr. Wolfson. “Parents know that a bedtime routine can help children get a good night’s sleep. Doing the same for themselves can have the same results.”
Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. Good-quality mattresses generally last about 10 years. Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting.
Avoid caffeine close to bedtime. Caffeine products, such as coffee, tea and colas, remain in the body, on average, from three to five hours, but they can affect some people up to 12 hours later.
Avoid alcohol close to bedtime. Many people think of alcohol as a sedative, but it actually disrupts sleep, causing nighttime awakenings.
Quit smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant that can make it more difficult for smokers to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake in the morning. Smokers should never smoke in bed or when they’re sleepy.
Finish eating at least two or three hours before your regular bedtime. Be aware that large, high-fat or spicy meals may cause heartburn, which leads to difficulty falling asleep and discomfort during the night.
Exercise regularly but complete your workout at least a few hours before bedtime. Exercising regularly makes it easier to fall asleep and contributes to sounder sleep. However, working out right before going to bed will make falling asleep more difficult.
Find ways to manage stress and anxiety. Relaxation exercises, meditation or deep breathing work for many people.
“If there are problems or issues keeping you awake, try writing them in a notebook and putting it away,” suggests Dr. Wolfson. “That way, you’ve registered your concerns but become free to put them aside until morning.”
When to seek help
If your sleep problems persist for longer than a week and are bothersome, or if sleepiness interferes with the way you feel or function during the day, don’t self-medicate with sleeping pills; make an appointment with your doctor.
“The key to better sleep is recognizing you’re not getting enough deep, restorative sleep, and then doing something about it,” says Dr. Wolfson. “Failure to do so puts you and others at risk.”