Sleep – Who Needs It?!

Think about young children out at a restaurant with their family way after their normal bedtime.  Maybe they’re on vacation or have been going all day, had to wait in line and, your luck, got the booth next to yours. They may be short tempered, ill-mannered, and obstinate – not the best dinner companions. But here’s the thing:  It’s probably not their fault. If they haven’t gotten enough sleep, they are tired and cranky. Lack of sleep throws off our chemical balance and deprives us of much-needed rest that allows us to cope, concentrate, solve problems, and function more effectively in interactive situations–like while playing, in school, and at work.

In March, we turn the clocks ahead an hour and look forward to enjoying the lengthening days and milder temperatures. If you have a dog or cat, you know they’re not happy about the time change – they expect breakfast and dinner on the schedule they’re used to. But besides upsetting our animals, the time change and loss of an hour adds to any sleep deprivation we may already be suffering and wreaks havoc with our internal clocks.

When we’re tired, we become irritable. Productivity, service, creativity, and quality of work often suffer. Being fatigued tests the patience of everyone around us, increases chances of accidents or mistakes, and aggravates chronic health conditions. It also reduces our natural immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.

Humans have a 24-hour internal clock called circadian rhythm that controls our eating and sleeping patterns, internal bodily functions and the timing of hormone secretions. We might have trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning if our internal clock gets out of sync with the external day-night cycle. This happens with multi-time-zone travel and is the basis for jet lag. With the daylight savings time shift, the external time has shifted while the internal clock has not, and even though it’s been weeks, there’s still a lag.

The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm, the better our sleep. This cycle also may be altered by the timing of various factors including naps, bedtime, exercise, diet, and especially exposure to light.

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. These not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, functioning like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Chronic illness, changes of medications, and injuries also affect restlessness. But whatever the causes, the more times we awake at night, the more likely we will not feel refreshed and restored in the morning.

Additionally, psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, arguments, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, are watching television, or are on your phone or laptop, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

Steps for sleeping more peacefully

Millions of Americans suffer from fatigue caused by poor sleep habits. And while chemical imbalances and chronic conditions such as sleep apnea—where the body doesn’t get enough oxygen during sleep—can be affecting you, there are many simple solutions you can try before turning to medications or speaking with your doctor about a sleep study.

The most important sleep hygiene measure is to maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern seven days a week. It’s also important to spend an appropriate amount of time in bed—not too little, or too much. This may vary by individual. For example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed, but if they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to seven hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated.

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

  • Avoid napping during the day. It can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half of your sleep cycle as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be practiced in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep; but avoid exercise close to bedtime.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep. Stay away from large meals, spicy foods which increase metabolism, sweets, or unhealthy snacking. And, remember, chocolate contains caffeine, though it has many helpful properties, as well.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, though try to avoid too much light exposure in the evening if you’ve been having trouble sleeping.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine and try to wake up at the same time every day.
  • Limit stimulating activities, electronic games, social networking, and TV shows before trying to go to sleep.
  • Don’t dwell on or bring your problems to bed, and try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations when it’s time to relax.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or work.
  • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, and the room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright.

It’s easy to put off sleep, figuring we can catch up when there’s more time. But like taking our medications, eating nutritional meals and exercising regularly, getting the rest we need is important for our overall health and wellness and should be treated as a necessity, not a commodity.