Everyday, people walk into my office in pain. But what happens after the knee stops aching or the neck is no longer tight? Without awareness, it is difficult to fix a problem. The critical next step is a shift from reactive to proactive measures.
I often say that what I didn’t learn in medical school I learned from my 2 year old. Why? She makes me aware of all of the things I have lost sight of over the years. I’m going to discuss many “toddler lessons” over the coming weeks, but the most critical one concerns sleep.
We often let sleep go as we get older. We sacrifice sleep for more work, more play or simply more anxiety.
Why is sleep so important?
Here are 6 reasons:
Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on subsequent testing.
Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite. Less than 8 hours of sleep per night is thought to contribute to weight gain.
Safety: Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. This in turn can causes accidents and mistakes.
Mood: Sleep loss makes us irritable and impatient. It makes it difficult to concentrate. Often, fatigue makes us unable to do the things we like to do.
Cardiovascular health: Sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
Disease: Sleep deprivation alters immune function, making us more prone to illness. It also increases the inflammatory state of the body that is linked to many diseases including cancer.
So, how do we get better sleep?
Be consistent. Set a time to sleep and a time to wake up. Stick with it. If you want to change your bedtime, try to do it in 15 minute increments over the course of many days. This allows your body to adjust. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm.
If you need to make up for a few lost hours, opt for a nap rather than sleeping late. This allows you to pay off your sleep debt without disturbing your natural sleep-wake cycle. When you nap, do it in the early afternoon, and limit naps to thirty minutes.
Light. Melatonin is a hormone controlled by light exposure. It helps regulate our sleep/wake cycle. Our level should be high at night to facilitate sleep and low during the day to keep us awake.
Spending long days in an office away from natural light, can impact your daytime wakefulness and make your brain sleepy. Try to get outside during work breaks. Let as much light into your home or office as possible. You can always try a light therapy box.
At night, turn off the screens. If you use a portable electronic device to read, use an eReader that is not backlit and that requires an additional light source. Avoid bright lights before bed, and use low-wattage bulbs instead. When it’s time to sleep, make sure the room is dark. Cover electrical displays and use heavy curtains or shades to block light from windows.
Location location location. If you make a consistent effort to relax and unwind before bed, you will sleep easier and more deeply. Keep noise down. If you can’t avoid or eliminate noise, try using white noise.
Also, keep your room cool. Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room (around 65° F or 18° C). If you often wake up with a sore back or neck, you may also need to invest in a new mattress or a try a different pillow.
Finally, limit your activities in bed. The cue when getting into bed should be sleep or sex, not necessarily in that order.
Diet: Stay away from big meals at night. Try to avoid heavy, rich foods within two hours of bed. Fatty foods take a lot of work for your stomach to digest and may keep you up. Also be cautious when it comes to spicy or acidic foods in the evening, as they can cause heartburn.
Many people think that alcohol will help them sleep. While it may make you fall asleep faster, alcohol reduces your sleep quality, and causes you to wake you up later in the night.
Avoid caffeine. It can take up to 10 hours to eliminate caffeine from your system. Caffeinated drinks, which act as diuretics, can also disrupt sleep by creating overnight trips to the bathroom.
Don’t smoke. Smoking causes sleep troubles in numerous ways. Nicotine is a stimulant, which disrupts sleep. Additionally, smokers experience nicotine withdrawal as the night progresses.
Exercise: As little as 20 to 30 minutes of daily activity helps encourage sleep. Some people prefer to schedule exercise in the morning or early afternoon as exercising too late in the day can stimulate the body. Relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching work best to promote sleep in the evening.
Get out of your head: Residual stress, worry, and anger from your day can make it very difficult to sleep well. When you wake up or can’t get to sleep, take note of what is invading your mind. You may need to explore stress management techniques, or evaluate the source of your anger and worry to effectively deal with it.
We all experience nights of less than restful sleep. When is it less of an annoyance and more of a problem requiring medical attention? When you consistently have these symptoms:
- Persistent daytime sleepiness or fatigue
- Loud snoring accompanied by pauses in breathing
- Persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Morning headaches
- Resless sensations in your legs or arms at night
- Physically acting out dreams during sleep
- Daytime fatigue, or galling asleep at inappropriate times