We spend one-third of our lives sleeping. Well, we’re supposed to.
It turns out that more than one-third of American adults don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep on a regular basis.Sleep deprivation is one of the most common problems we see in our Richardson clinic. In fact, a 2009 survey found that 28.2 percent of Dallas residents and 36.6 percent of Fort Worth residents did not get enough sleep for 14 days in the preceding month.
Most of my patients don’t come in complaining about sleep deprivation. Instead, they have vague symptoms such as fatigue, lack of concentration, general weakness, and depression. We tend to discover that their daytime issues stem from night-time problems after we ask about their sleep habits.
Stress, working longer hours, and addiction to technology such as our smartphones are leading to a growing sleep problem. And having trouble sleeping won’t just make you tired – it also can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and depression.
The good news is you often can fix sleep problems with a few simple lifestyle changes.
Practice good sleep hygiene
Sleep is essential to good health. It helps your brain and body function properly by promoting healing and growth. Sleep allows the brain to form new pathways to help you learn and remember information and helps your body repair injuries and maintain hormonal balance.
If you experience trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, the first thing we’ll examine is your sleep hygiene, or practices that promote quality sleep. A few good sleep hygiene habits to follow include:
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. I know it’s tempting to stay up late or sleep in on your day off, but your body functions best when it’s on a routine.
- Associate the bedroom with sleep: When you’re getting ready to fall asleep, don’t do anything that will stimulate the brain, such as watching TV or browsing Facebook or Twitter on your phone. In fact, the blue light emitted from many electronic devices can prevent the release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
- Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic drinks in the evening: Skipping caffeine may seem obvious, but what about alcohol? While alcohol may cause you to fall asleep quicker, it disrupts sleep later as the body metabolizes it.
- Don’t exercise before going to bed: Exercising early in the day is good for you and can lead to better sleep. However, revving up right before you want to go to sleep will not help your brain slow down.
Many of my patients admit that they consistently break one or more of these rules. They find that when they make slight changes to their routine, such as exercising before work or eliminating their after-dinner glass of wine or coffee, it makes a positive impact on their quality of sleep.
Adults should get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Some people may need 10 hours to feel refreshed and alert, while others only need four or five hours. Everyone is different, and if you’re able to function normally during the day, do what works for you. But seven to eight hours generally is a healthy amount of sleep.
How to maintain good sleep when you work at night
It’s not always easy to practice good sleep hygiene. I know this firsthand from working a rotating shift as a resident. It’s hard to find a good balance. You want to feel “normal” and spend time with family and friends during the day.
If you are one of the 15 percent of Americans who work a night shift, rotating shift, or other irregular schedule, there are a few tricks to help you maintain healthy sleep:
- Keep to a regular sleep schedule: As much as you possibly can, go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on your day off.
- Exercise before work: A little light exercise will help keep the mind and body awake and sharp for hours.
- Avoid caffeine toward the end of your shift: You don’t want to be amped up before you head home to bed.
- Wear dark glasses on your way home: This will help prevent sunlight from stimulating your brain and keeping it from falling asleep.
- Use dark window shades and white noise: Darkness tells your body it’s time to sleep, while the white noise will help drown out distractions outside.
- Alert family and friends to your schedule: Share your schedule and the best times to reach you with the people close to you to (hopefully) avoid being woken up by a ringing phone.
Tips for when you have trouble sleeping
You may find that even though you practice good sleep hygiene, you still experience some insomnia. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you’re still awake, get up and go to a different room. Lie down in a different bed or engage in a boring activity. Then return to bed and try again to fall asleep.
Do the same thing if you wake up in the night and can’t fall back to sleep after 20 to 30 minutes. When you go to a different room, don’t watch TV or turn on any bright lights. You can try reading a little, but avoid reading anything exciting – you don’t want to stimulate your brain too much! After a while, return to bed and try sleeping again.
If you don’t see improvement in your sleep after a few months of making changes to your sleep hygiene, your physician may recommend melatonin or another sleep medication.
Another problem that you may experience is sleep apnea, in which you periodically stop breathing or take shallow breaths while you sleep. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Snoring that disturbs your partner
- Pauses in your breathing that your partner can notice
- Waking up multiple times a night short of breath
- Waking up with a headache
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
If these symptoms sound familiar, talk to your physician about participating in a sleep study.
Every year, new studies emerge emphasizing how important sleep is to all aspects of our health. While most physicians do not discuss sleep habits during routine health exams, perhaps we should. I think you’ll soon start seeing more physicians ask about it.
Talk to a physician if you experience sleep problems, or if you want to know more about how you can get better sleep. Request an appointment online or call 214-645-8300.