Sleep Hygiene

How changing poor sleep habits can transform the sleep-deprived

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Most of us have experienced the next-day consequences of sleep loss. Our creativity is dulled, we can't think straight, we become forgetful, clumsy and grumpy. A sleep-deprived person can experience impairments equal to that of a drunk driver. But researchers are learning that there is way more going on during chronic sleep loss besides next-day sleepiness; sleep deprivation can also put you at risk for serious health problems.

There are many reasons why we don't get enough sleep - work, school, and family being foremost. But sometimes sleepiness is the result of a sleep disorder, which fragments and sabotages a good night sleep in many different ways. Finding out the cause of your sleeplessness and implementing changes might protect you from health problems greater than daytime fatigue.

In the Wake of a Sleepless Life

While occasional sleep loss is bothersome, chronic problems can take a toll on the body. No one understands fully why the body sleeps, but there are certain functions that restore and refresh the body. Your blood pressure decreases; heart rate slows; appetite, stress and insulin hormones quiet; and blood clotting cells take a break. Keep the body awake and you are subject to weight gain, heart disease, mood disorders, decreased immunity, insulin resistance and diabetes.

Reasons for the Rouse

There are 81 different sleep disorders that affect approximately70 million people in the US. Most of these are rare and affect few people, while the most common are insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep, waking too early or not feeling refreshed after sleep. Insomnia is pervasive and is diagnosed when sleep problems occur more than 3 times a week for more than a month.

Unless you are among the very few genetically programmed natural short-sleepers - requiring only 4-5 hours a night - most people are ready to take on the day after 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

Rest for the Weary

Both the occasional restless sleeper and those with chronic sleep problems can benefit from good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene addresses the environmental and behavioral factors that are counterproductive to sleep.

Keeping a sleep diary can help you get a handle on your sleep pattern that can uncover unhealthy patterns and practices.

Elements of a daily sleep diary include:

  • What you are doing before bed
  • The time you went to bed
  • When you woke up
  • How long it took you to fall asleep
  • What time you awoke
  • The time you spend napping during the day

Sleep specialists say that good sleep hygiene can improve sleep in almost everyone. The goal is to trade bad habits for ones that work a lot better.

Here are 8 great habits that everyone should adopt for better sleep.

1.  Obey the 15-minute rule

This sounds like a no-brainer but you would be surprised how often we get into bed and wait and wait for sleep to arrive. If you are not asleep after 15 minutes, get out of bed. You want the bed to be associated with sleep, not wakefulness. Try going into another room and engaging in a non-stimulating activity until you begin to feel sleepy; then head back into bed.

2.  Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only

Here the goal is to strengthen the association between sleep and the bed. So don't bring work into bed, watch TV, or talk on the telephone.

3.  Wake up the same time every day

Keeping a consistent wake-up time irrespective of how much sleep you got the night before helps regulate your biological clock. You should do this on weekends and holidays too. This way when you go to sleep you will have been awake for roughly the same number of hours each day.

4.  Make the environment favorable for sleep

To do this, think like a bat. You want your bedroom to be cool, dark and quiet. Uncomfortable bedding, light, noise and stuffy heat can wreck a good night's sleep. So can pouncing pets and snoring spouses. Take a close inventory of the room. As soon as your eyes adjust to darkness, be on the lookout for light emanating from phones, radios, cable boxes, clocks and street lamps. Use blackout shades if necessary and cover light sources. Keep the room as cold as you can comfortably stand, typically around 65degF.

5.  Power down

Much like reading your child a story before bed or brushing your teeth, make bedtime a ritual. Start winding down and shutting off technology a few hours before bedtime. Quiet yourself. People tend to fall asleep when their body temperature falls so taking a hot bath before bed is not an oldwives tale.

6.  Put the head to rest

It may be hard to turn off your brain at night. It seems like the quiet of the bedroom is conducive for making the mind wander into stressful territory. Progressive relaxation is a technique that involves tightening and relaxing groups of muscles starting with the hands and moving up to the arms, shoulders, neck, and head, and then down to the legs and feet. Spray your pillow with lavender, put on some soft relaxing music and melt away.

7.  Stay clear of sleep stealers

While exercise during the day can improve sleep, doing it too close to bedtime is too stimulating. And while alcohol has a sedating effect, it can disrupt deep sleep. Don't go to bed hungry but also not full. Avoid eating a big meal, drinking alcoholic beverages and exercising within 6 hours of bedtime. Avoid having caffeine after lunch. Try not to nap during the day or limit it to less than 15 minutes not too late in the day.

8.  Get help if you need it

The longer a sleep problem continues, the more ingrained it becomes. There is no need to suffer with sleep problems. If you are having trouble more days than not, see a certified sleep medicine specialist to get at the root cause of your sleep problem. There are many treatments that can help: Cognitive behavioral therapy can reorder your thinking about sleep; melatonin hormone therapy can normalize altered circadian sleep patterns and over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications and help initiate and sustain sleep.