SLEEP

YOUR WAY TO BETTER HEALTH

text by Shana Schwarz

Catch some z’s. Get forty winks. Hit the hay. Shut eye. Whatever you call it, adequate sleep is essential for our physical and emotional health. And it’s importance goes way beyond boosting your mood or banishing those nasty under-eye circles. Here are the benefits of a good night’s sleep along with tips on how to avoid getting caught napping. 

Above: The average person will spend one-third of their life asleep.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP

For adults, physicians recommend an average of eight hours of shut eye each night. We all know that it’s difficult to concentrate after a restless night, oft times making it physically painful to function. A Harvard University research study compiled six reasons why not to scrimp on sleep: memory, weight, safety, mood, cardiovascular health and disease.

A good night’s rest helps the brain commit new information to memory. During sleep you strengthen “practice” skills learned while you were awake. Through a process called memory consolidation, studies have shown that people who slept after learning a task did better on retaining, reorganizing and restructuring that information. Forget “pulling an all-nighter” to cram for an exam or prepare for a presentation. Instead, review and rehearse early enough in the evening to allow for a full night’s sleep to let it all sink in.

Chronic sleep deprivation also may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite. Many diet supplements contain stimulants to help the body break down food that we consume, which can lead to sleeplessness and undo any help gained from the supplement itself. A good fix for this is to only consume anything with a stimulant, including caffeinated drinks, in the morning and early afternoon, but never within four hours before bedtime.  

Staying up all night can also lead to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may affect reaction time and impair good decision making, causing mishaps such as traffic accidents. Many scientists compare the effects of driving while sleepy to driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. According to Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, “reducing your nighttime sleep by as little as one-and-a-half hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 34-percent.”

Fatigue can result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate and moodiness. Serious sleep disorders have also been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels and irregular heartbeat. While diet, exercise and heredity contribute greatly to a person’s chance of having heart issues, allowing that all-important organ to rest is just as crucial as other factors. When we sleep, our hearts don’t have to work quite as hard, and that rest period is vitally important.

Lastly, a Harvard study showed that sleep deprivation alters immune function, including the activity of the body’s “killer” cells. If you find yourself getting sick all the time and catching every disease you come into contact with, take a good look at your sleep patterns. It’s easy to say we don’t have time to sleep, but a few more hours in bed each night certainly beats more hours spent at the doctor’s office.

Above: Banish your cell phone from the bedroom at least one hour before you plan to go to sleep.

CREATE THE PERFECT SANCTUARY

A good way to insure a good night’s sleep is to make your bedroom more conducive to slumber. It starts with the right bedding. You spend a third of your life in bed, so be sure to invest in a good mattress to avoid conditions like back pain, neck stiffness and poor circulation.

 “To start,” says Arya Nick Shamie, M.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, “the mattress needs to support your body in a neutral position, one in which your spine has a nice curvature, and your buttocks, heels, shoulders and head are supported in proper alignment. If the mattress is too firm, it will push on those main pressure points and take you out of alignment.  If it’s too soft those pressure points won’t be properly supported.”

Next, be sure to invest in soft linens. High thread-count, luxury sheets are a smart purchase, and the best ones will even get softer with each wash. Before putting linens on your bed, though, be sure to cover your mattress and pillows with an allergy and dust protector. No matter how often you clean your linens, dust and other pollens will find their way onto your mattress and pillows. Breathing that in night after night is perilous to your respiratory and overall health.

Once you’ve got your bed assembled, look around your room. Keep ambient and early morning light out with curtains, and look into a white noise machine if you live in a noisy area. Keep your room painted in colors that don’t stimulate your eyes too much and never let electronics or other household items take over this sacred space. 

In fact, sleeping with your cell phone right next to you, as millions of Americans do, is one of the worst things you can do. Set a curfew for yourself and vow not to check your phone for at least the last hour before you go to sleep. Regardless of the content (e-mail, Facebook, websites, etc.), the glow from the phone will keep your brain and eyes overly active at the exact time that you should be winding down. Instead, keep a soft light lamp nearby and reading material that inspires or makes you happy by your bed.  Let those last moments before you slip into unconsciousness be positive, and you will find your sleep to be much more restful.

Above: The underlying causes of chronic insomnia should be diagnosed and treated by a professional.

IF YOU STILL CAN’T SLEEP

If this advice doesn’t help you troubleshoot your sleep issues, it may be time to seek professional help. Many counselors specialize in sleep disorders and can either help you talk through things that might be keeping you from sleep, or recommend a sleep study program if there’s something physical that’s at fault. Symptoms like chronic snoring and teeth grinding should be checked by a doctor, as you may suffer from Sleep Apnea (a condition that can be fatal if left untreated) or anxiety that can severely harm your oral health.  

Adding practices like yoga or meditation can help quiet the mind. Remember, infrequent bouts with insomnia are normal and shouldn’t be cause for alarm if they pop up from time to time. However, chronic insomnia can be dangerous, and the underlying causes should be diagnosed and treated by a professional. 

Before turning to prescriptions, consider trying natural supplements. Dr. Tasneem Bhatia, of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, recommends melatonin, 5-HTP (a precursor of serotonin), valerian root or jujube seed to help fall and stay asleep. Finding the right combination and dosage amounts may take some trial and error, but it’s worth it in the long run.