Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to sleep. Tossing and turning, even though your body is exhausted, your mind remains active and you’re painfully aware of how soon you’ll need to awaken for the next day. Or maybe you’re plagued by daytime sleepiness, such that at any given time you are fighting the urge to close your eyes and doze off. In an earlier article (part 1 of this series on Sleep habits) I reviewed how much sleep you should be getting, on average for your age. If you haven’t already, take this two minute, 10 question Sleep Hygiene Test to determine the quality of your sleep habits.
Are you suffering from sleep deprivation? Sleep experts say that if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you likely haven’t had enough sleep. If you regularly fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down or closing your eyes, you are probably suffering from severe sleep deprivation, or possibly a sleep disorder. Another marker of sleep deprivation is when a person begins experiencing microsleeps, (3-14 seconds of sleep in an awake person) because the body is desperate for rest. More often than not this person is not aware they are experiencing these episodes of microsleep.
Aside from chronic sleepiness, how is my health affected by poor sleep habits? Sleep deprivation can have serious effects on your health in the form of physical and mental impairments. Regularly not getting enough sleep impairs our ability to think clearly, effectively manage stress and moderate our emotions, maintain a healthy immune system/fight diseases and disrupt hormonal levels such that your body feels increased hunger without satiety, which leads to weight gain regardless of diet and exercise (click here to learn more about how poor sleep affects your weight, or view research articles that discuss this). FACT: Sleep is so fundamental to our overall health that total sleep deprivation has been proven to be fatal- lab rats denied the chance to rest die within two to three weeks. (Anecdotally, as a clinical psychologist who used to perform psychological evaluations for gastric by-pass surgery candidates, I noticed that many of these morbidly obese people worked the night shift, and had very poor sleep habits as a result.)
How can I begin improving my sleep habits? Sleep hygiene tips from the American Sleep Association.
Maintain a regular sleep routine
* Go to bed at the same time. Wake up at the same time. Ideally, your schedule will remain the same (+/- 20 minutes) every night of the week.
Avoid naps if possible
* Naps decrease the ‘Sleep Debt’ that is so necessary for easy sleep onset.
* Each of us needs a certain amount of sleep per 24-hour period. We need that amount, and we don’t need more than that.
* When we take naps, it decreases the amount of sleep that we need the next night – which may cause sleep fragmentation and diffulty initiating sleep, and may lead to insomnia.
Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes.
* If you find your mind racing, or worrying about not being able to sleep during the middle of the night, get out of bed, and sit in a chair in the dark. Do your mind racing in the chair until you are sleepy, then return to bed. No TV or internet during these periods! That will just stimulate you more than desired.
* If this happens several times during the night, that is OK. Just maintain your regular wake time, and try to avoid naps.
Don’t watch TV or read in bed.
* When you watch TV or read in bed, you associate the bed with wakefulness.
* The bed is reserved for two things – sleep and hanky panky.
Do not drink caffeine inappropriately
* The effects of caffeine may last for several hours after ingestion. Caffeine can fragment sleep, and cause difficulty initiating sleep. If you drink caffeine, use it only before noon.
* Remember that soda and tea contain caffeine as well.
Avoid inappropriate substances that interfere with sleep
* Cigarettes, alcohol, and over-the-counter medications may cause fragmented sleep.
* Exercise before 2 pm every day. Exercise promotes continuous sleep.
* Avoid rigorous exercise before bedtime. Rigorous exercise circulates endorphins into the body which may cause difficulty initiating sleep.
Have a quiet, comfortable bedroom
* Set your bedroom thermostat at a comfortable temperature. Generally, a little cooler is better than a little warmer.
* Turn off the TV and other extraneous noise that may disrupt sleep. Background ‘white noise’ like a fan is OK.
* If your pets awaken you, keep them outside the bedroom.
* Your bedroom should be dark. Turn off bright lights.
If you are a ‘clock watcher’ at night, hide the clock.
Have a comfortable pre-bedtime routine
* A warm bath, shower
* Meditation, or quiet time
References: American Sleep Association., webmd.com, psychologytoday.com