By Kathryn M. Serbin, DNP
CAPT, NC, RET
There’s an Irish proverb that goes something like this: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” Personally, I think sleep is overrated — of course, that is what I tell myself when I wake up feeling tired.
I am not alone though. Lately, I’ve been having conversations with coworkers, family and friends about their trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up during the night. So it’s no surprise that poor sleep health is a common problem, with 25 percent of adults in the U.S. reporting insufficient sleep or rest. We stay up too late; we overstimulate ourselves with late night activities (like watching television) and get up early. There are not enough hours in the day for all that needs to get done, so hours of sleep are what usually get shortened. The truth is that good sleep hygiene practices can prevent the development of sleep problems and disorders.
Sleep, like physical activity and nutrition, is important to our health and well-being. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes the importance of adequate sleep. One of the goals of Healthy People 2020 is to increase public knowledge of how adequate sleep and treatment of sleep disorders improves health, productivity, wellness, quality of life and safety on our roads and in our workplaces.
Sleep loss and untreated sleep disorders influence basic patterns of behavior that negatively affect family health and interpersonal relationships. Fatigue and sleepiness can reduce productivity and increase the chance of accidents at home, while driving or at work. Adequate sleep is important in helping fight off infection and supports endocrine, metabolic and neurological functions that are critical for maintenance of individual health.
For many people who are not getting an adequate nights rest, those few hours of sleep can add up to an increase in weight. According to research, sleep deprivation activates a small part of the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that is involved with appetite regulation. There are two critical hormones that are involved in regulating food intake: Leptin, which suppresses appetite and Ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. Insufficient sleep appears to have a negative impact on our body’s regulation of these hormones, which results in lowered levels of Leptin and higher levels of Ghrelin. Sleep deprived people end up eating more because they are hungry. So, sleep is another part of the weight control equation. Adequate sleep and exercise along with a sensible diet can help people achieve their weight goal.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to increased risk of falls due to daytime drowsiness, especially for older individuals. Children and teenagers can also suffer from sleep deprivation and need to learn the importance of good sleep habits. Psychological stressors may make it difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep. It takes time to wind down and turn off all of the noise from the day. Developing a pre sleep ritual can help to break the connection between stressors from the day and bedtime. Bedtime rituals for children and teens are important and help them develop healthy habits to carry into adulthood.
Rituals can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour; it can be listening to quiet music, taking a hot bath, meditating or reading something light.
There are tangible things that can be done to improve your chances of getting a good night sleep. For instance avoid alcohol, caffeine and spicy or sugary foods four to six hours before bedtime. Food can be disruptive right before going to sleep so try to avoid large meals before bedtime. Avoid rigorous exercise routines within two hours before bedtime, as this can decrease your ability to fall asleep. Make you bedroom an inviting oasis by keeping it well ventilated with a slightly cooler temperature setting, block out distracting noise and eliminate as much light as possible. Instead of watching television before bed, listen to soft music; you might practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or gentle stretching that helps to relieve muscle tension. Leave your worries outside of the bedroom. Some people find it helpful to jot down issues that need to be addressed with a plan to deal with them the next day. Making a good night’s rest a priority will help you live a balanced, healthy life.
Sleep experts recommend a range of seven to nine hours of sleep for the average adult. While sleep patterns may change with age, the amount of sleep we need generally does not. Sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness are the most telling signs of poor sleep hygiene. If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Your primary care physician may be able to help you; if not, you can probably find a sleep specialist at a major hospital near you. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so you can finally get that good night’s sleep you need.