Nod yes, not off, if you’re feeling sleepy

Some days, there’s more of the Sleepy Dwarf in us than we’d care to admit. Beyond the excuse of extremely active weekends and occasional late nights, we’ve gotten too used to feeling fatigued. We drag ourselves to work, school and activities with the promise that, next weekend – or when we take that last exam, get through this big project, or finish the season – we’ll get some much-needed sleep. But how much IS enough? Is five or six hours a night really cutting it for us?

The answer, for most human beings, is definitely “no.”  Everyone’s individual sleep needs vary. In general, most healthy adults require 16 hours of wakefulness and need an average of eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness after as little as six or seven hours of sleep. Others can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept 10 hours. And, contrary to common myth, the need for sleep doesn’t decline with age, although the ability to sleep for six to eight hours at one time may be reduced.

Sleep is essential for a person’s health and well-being, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Yet millions of people do not get enough sleep and suffer related consequences relating to performance, irritability, accidents and reduced productivity. Surveys conducted by the NSF revealed that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders, and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. Most of these problems go undiagnosed and untreated. In addition, more than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month, with 20 percent reporting problem sleepiness a few days a week or more.

Psychologists and other scientists who study the causes of sleep disorders have determined problems directly or indirectly tied to abnormalities in the brain and nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems, and with metabolic functions. Furthermore, unhealthy conditions, disorders and diseases can also cause sleep problems, including:

  • Pathological sleepiness, insomnia and accidents
  • Hypertension and elevated cardiovascular risks (including stroke)
  • Emotional disorders (depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome and diabetes
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

Though common, not everyone who is tired has a sleep disorder. There is a lot we can do to get a better night’s sleep, feel refreshed when we awake, and remain alert throughout the day. It’s called “sleep hygiene” and refers to those practices, habits, and environmental factors that are critically important for sound sleep.

We all have a day/night cycle of about 24 hours called the circadian rhythm. It greatly influences when we sleep and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm, the better our sleep. This cycle may be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, exercise, and especially exposure to light (from traveling across time zones to staring at television or a laptop in bed at night).

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40 our sleep patterns change, and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. This not only directly affects the quality of our sleep, but also interacts with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Additionally, psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night.

Here are 10 sleep hygiene tips to help us relax, fall asleep, stay asleep, and get better sleep so we wake up refreshed and alert:

  1. Avoid watching TV, eating, and discussing emotional issues in bed. The bed should be used for sleep and sex only. When we associate the bed with other activities it often becomes difficult to fall asleep.
  2. Minimize noise, light, and temperature extremes during sleep with ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner. Even the slightest nighttime noises or luminescent lights can disrupt the quality of our sleep. Try to keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature — not too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees).
  3. Try not to drink fluids after 8 p.m. This may reduce awakenings due to urination.
  4. Avoid naps if possible, but if you do nap, make it no more than about 25 minutes about eight hours after you awake.
  5. Do not expose yourself to bright light if you need to get up at night. Use a small night-light instead.
  6. Nicotine is a stimulant and should be avoided, particularly near bedtime and upon night awakenings. Smoking tobacco products before bed, although it may feel relaxing, is actually putting a stimulant into our bloodstream.
  7. Caffeine is also a stimulant and is present in coffee (100-200 mg), soda (50-75 mg), tea (50-75 mg), and various over-the-counter medications. Caffeine should be discontinued at least four to six hours before bedtime. But note that if we consume large amounts of caffeine and cut ourselves off too quickly, we may get headaches that could keep us awake.
  8. Although alcohol is a depressant and may help us fall asleep, the metabolic machinery that clears it from our body when we are sleeping causes a withdrawal syndrome. This withdrawal causes awakenings and is often associated with nightmares and sweats.
  9. A light snack may seem sleep-inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates or dairy products. Milk contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, which has been shown in research to help people go to sleep. So milk and cookies or crackers (without chocolate) may be useful and taste good as well.
  10. Do not exercise vigorously just before bed, especially if you are the type of person who is aroused by exercise. If possible, it’s best to exercise in the morning or afternoon (preferably an aerobic workout, like running or walking).

We know when we’re tired, but doing something about the negative effects of fatigue and sleeplessness requires focus, discipline and often, professional assistance. Seek help if you can’t seem to get the sleep you need.  And if you’re just afraid of missing something, wake up. If you don’t want to morph from chronically Sleepy to permanently Grumpy, get some rest!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!