When it comes to sleep, you toss and turn or you can’t fall asleep at all. There are only so many sheep you can count. Or maybe you find yourself waking up several times a night (even without a poke in the side because of your snoring).
March is National Sleep Awareness Month which focuses on an opportunity for you to take a look at your own sleep habits and make improvements in the quality and quantity of your nightly rest.
How Sleep Works
Sleep is a complex process and still part of proven science and intriguing mystery. Multiple parts of your brain are involved in producing hormones and helpful chemicals that regulate your rest and wakefulness. There are four main stages of the sleep cycle based on what’s called REM (rapid eye movement). The first three stages are non-REM sleep in which your brain and body slows and your muscles relax. During stage three deep sleep, your body repairs itself and builds tissue, muscle and bone. The fourth stage is REM sleep that allows your brain to process information, dream and store memories.
Normal sleep involves each sleep cycle lasting about 90 minutes with four or five sleep cycles repeated per night. For years the tried-and-true number of hours of sleep needed for healthy adults was considered eight hours. Sleep experts and medical professionals are now realizing there is more of a range of six to eight hours. As their bodies grow and develop, teens, children and infants require the most sleep, with some newborns needing up to 17 hours a day. In my observations, senior adults may need more sleep because they suffer from the worst sleep. As you age, your brain doesn’t really sleep as efficiently. Older adults also face more health difficulties that interrupt their rest.
Common Sleep Problems
Your physical, emotional and mental health are interwoven in how well you sleep. As a think Internal Medicine physician, I see a wide range of patients with varying degrees of sleep deprivation. Common sleep disorders include insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. The most prevalent sleep disorder is insomnia, the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Other health conditions such as pain, menopause, enlarged prostate and respiratory ailments including asthma also affect sleep patterns. People with uncontrolled heart failure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses also experience a lack of restful sleep.
Effects of Sleep Deficiency
Sleep deficiency means you don’t sleep enough, you don’t sleep well, you sleep at the wrong time of day (narcolepsy) or you have a sleep disorder that causes poor-quality sleep. Reports show that about one-third of Americans are not getting sufficient sleep every day. The National Institutes of Health states, “an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic, or ongoing, sleep disorders.”
A lack of sleep contributes to mood disorders and mental health struggles, decreased focus and concentration, loss of productivity, injuries and even an increased risk of death. People also tend to gain weight with sleep deprivation because they tend to crave calorie-rich food and they opt for eating more unhealthy comfort foods when they are overtired.
Not getting sufficient sleep is also linked to more long-lasting health problems including depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke. It is a myth that people can cope well with little sleep for great lengths of time and experience no negative effects.
How to Improve Sleep
Our sleep is affected because our lives are too busy and too stressful. Screen time and social media habits tend to bleed into our evenings. We cause our circadian rhythms, part of our body’s internal clock, to get off balance when we stay up late some nights and sleep in other mornings. Most people actually train themselves to be bad sleepers. So most sleep can be corrected through regimenting your lifestyle.
The following are steps to improve your sleep habits:
- Stay with a routine for when you go to bed and wake up every day. On the weekends limit your extra sleep to only about an hour more.
- Reserve the hour before bed for quiet. Avoid bright artificial light from TV and computer screens. Turn off the loud music and skip intense exercise late in the day.
- Stay away from large or heavy meals within a few hours of bedtime. A light snack can be okay, but don’t load up too much.
- Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Alcohol can make you feel drowsy, but it interferes with the architecture of your sleep overall.
- Consider the effect nicotine and caffeine (caffeinated sodas, coffee, tea and chocolate) have on your body. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants that can impair sleep quality. Some people are not affected by caffeine later in the day, so beware of your individual response.
- Stay physically active every day. When possible, get outside and move around during the day so your body gains the benefits of exercise.
When You Need Medical Help for Your Sleep
If you’re dealing with sleep disruptions consistently, I recommend making an appointment with your think healthcare provider. We can do a full assessment to determine the root cause of your sleep problems.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and most cases are caused by lifestyle, particularly extra stress and anxiety in a person’s life. To help, we recommend following better sleep hygiene (see the steps above) and learning better emotional and mental health exercises to eliminate the worry and stress triggers. We also refer patients to our Behavioral Health team if certain mental health conditions are blocking nightly rest.
Sometimes, we will prescribe medications for insomnia, but none of them actually help your sleep structure. They just kind of make you drowsy so you can sleep. I dissuade the use of certain over-the-counter medications like Benadryl® because there’s information that the diphenhydramine drug leads to dementia.
Research shows that on average a sleep aid only gains you 20 minutes of extra sleep a night. We have to weigh that out with the side effects of taking a sleep medication. It is also pertinent to tell your medical provider about all prescriptions and medications you are taking so we can ensure the medicines are interacting well together and not causing your sleep issue.
If we determine that you have an underlying health condition such as sleep apnea, we may refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation. But first, losing some weight often helps correct obstructive sleep apnea. Be encouraged that most sleep disorders are treatable. All of us at think Whole Person Healthcare want you well rested and safely enjoying your life again. Come see us and let’s get you catching that beauty rest and more.
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