Make a good night's sleep a priority
By: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
We’re winding down on a busy time of year filled with friends and family and holiday get-togethers. There’s lots to do, but only 24 hours in a day. So, many of us burn the candle at both ends, and we wind up shorting ourselves on something that can impact our health, mood, weight and more. That something is a good night’s sleep.
Sleep plays a vital role in health and well-being. The way you feel while you are awake depends in part on what happens while you sleep. It’s a common misconception that people can teach themselves to get by on less sleep (five or six hours a night) with no negative effects. This is not supported by research. While the amount of sleep each of us requires each night varies from person to person, sleep experts recommend seven or eight hours for adults.
Sleep needs change with age. Babies sleep about 16 – 18 hours a day. Preschool-aged children 11 – 12 hours. By the time kids reach school age they need 10-plus hours of sleep. Teens function best on 9 – 10 hours each night.
There are numerous reasons – and benefits – to make sleep a priority. One important benefit is better physical health. Your immune system requires sleep to function properly. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way your immune system responds to infections and may make you less able to fight common diseases. In addition to common infections, insufficient sleep is linked to chronic and serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes and obesity.
Sleep can improve memory, thinking and learning capabilities. Your body may be sleeping, but your mind is busy while your head rests on your pillow. Our brains process and consolidate memories while we sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, memories may not be stored correctly and can be lost. In addition, sleep loss can impair cognition, attention and decision-making skills. A good night’s sleep can boost creativity and studies have shown that people learn new tasks better when they are well-rested.
Getting a good night’s sleep can improve your safety and lower your risk of injury. The Institute of Medicine estimates that 20 percent of auto accidents in the U.S. result from drowsy driving – that’s about one million crashes each year.
Sleep deficiency can lead to weight gain. When you don’t get enough sleep, hormones that regulate hunger become unbalanced. Levels of the hormone that makes you feel hungry go up, while levels of the hormone that makes you feel full go down. When you feel hungry, you tend to eat more.
A good night’s sleep may improve your mood. People who are exhausted are more likely to feel angry, act out impulsively, experience mood swings, feel sad or depressed and lack motivation.
Damage from sleep deficiency can happen in an instant – such as a car accident due to drowsy driving. Or, it can happen over time. Sleep loss is cumulative. Negative effects such as those affecting the heart or causing obesity happen gradually because of chronic sleep loss.
If you’re worried that you may not be getting enough sleep, try using a sleep diary. Write down when you go to bed each night, how long it takes to fall asleep, if and when you wake during the night, when you wake up in the morning and how alert and rested you feel upon waking. After a week or two, you may see patterns regarding how you feel and how much sleep you are getting.
There are steps you can take to improve your sleep. They include:
Set up a sleep environment that fosters a good night’s rest. Make sure the room is dark and quiet. Remove distractions such as laptops, TVs and cell phones. A comfortable mattress and pillow can promote a good night’s sleep, as can cooler temperatures. Turn the clock face away from you so you don’t worry about the time.
Establish a bedtime routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day – even on weekends.
Do something you find relaxing during the 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bed.
Avoid large meals late at night.
Don’t nap after 3:00 p.m.
Avoid exercising 2 to 3 hours before your bedtime.
If possible, avoid medications that delay or disrupt your sleep. Talk to your doctor about any drugs you are taking that could disrupt your sleep and whether they could be taken at a different time of the day.
Sunlight exposure helps regulate sleep patterns. Try to get a dose of natural sunlight for 30 to 60 minutes each day.
If you can’t get to sleep right away and find yourself still wide awake after lying in bed for 20 to 30 minutes, get up and do a relaxing activity and then try to go to sleep again.
If you continue to have trouble sleeping, see your primary care physician. You may have a sleep disorder that requires treatment. Bring your sleep diary and any other information that would be helpful in understanding your specific sleep situation to your appointment.
Sleep is a universal need for us all. In our over-busy 24/7 society, sometimes sleep can take a backburner to all the other important things we think we need to accomplish. Ignoring our need for sleep can and will cause problems in the long run. By making sleep a priority – and adding it to your “to do” list each night – you’ll promote health and a well-being that will enable you to get more done during your awake hours because your mind and body will be operating at peak performance.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.