January 12, 2017
Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. One out of three individuals will have insomnia at some point in their lives. Brief periods of sleeplessness that accompany stressful situations, like relationship issues or a new job, are called acute insomnia. They are normal and should pass quickly. But if you sleep fitfully at least three nights per week, for three months or more, you may be suffering from chronic insomnia.
Dr. Michael Anderson, Ph.D., of Kansas Pulmonary & Sleep Specialists, Overland Park Regional Medical Center, explains how poor sleep affects us both physically and mentally. “Short-term sleep loss affects our alertness, emotional stability and our quality of life, while long-term sleep loss affects our immune system, is associated with weight gain, and may even be associated with increased risk of disease such as cancer.”
Poor sleep can also be dangerous. “Sleep deprivation results in poor attention and lack of focus,” Dr. Anderson observes. “Even brief lapses in attention can increase the risk of serious, even catastrophic accidents and injuries.”
Sleep disorders can affect every member of your family. “Children who are sleep deprived have very inefficient learning and memory ability,” says Dr. Anderson. “Symptoms of sleep deprivation in children often mimic symptoms of ADD. Children with a diagnosis of ADD are sometimes misdiagnosed. ADD sometimes ‘disappears’ in an underlying sleep disorder is corrected or if children are encouraged to get more sleep.”
Fortunately, there are simple behavioral and environmental changes you can make to help yourself or another member of your family fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up rested.
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Try to train your body to sleep by having a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on the weekends. This helps regulate your body's clock, making it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
- Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping at a low energy point may help you get through the day, but these catnaps can keep you up at night.
- Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is great for all kinds of reasons. It will also help you sleep better. To get the deepest sleep, just be sure to put your time in at the gym 4-6 hours prior to bedtime. In the three hours following strenuous activity, you tend to feel more alert and energized, which won’t help you get your zzz’s.
- Evaluate your room. Is your bedroom sleep-friendly? It shouldn’t be a place for work, so banish your emails and projects. There is increasing evidence that light emitted from electronic devices like computers, smart phones or iPads can negatively affect our sleep quality. Televisions and pets are also distracting, and shouldn’t be in your bedroom either.
- Create just the right environment. Make sure that your bedroom is cool (between 60 and 67 degrees), comfortable, quiet and dark. Darkness sends a natural signal to our bodies to produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. To keep things dark, use curtains that completely block light or wear a sleep mask. To combat ambient noise, wear ear plugs, use a white noise machine, or simply run a humidifier or fan to provide a pleasant audio background.
- The best bed. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. If you are sleeping on the same bed you’ve had for a decade, it may have exceeded its life expectancy. Choose quality pillows with the proper support for your preferred sleeping position, and replace them regularly too.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading a book, listening to some soothing music, meditating or taking a warm bath.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening. While it may make you feel drowsier, alcohol triggers lighter than normal sleep, so that you wake up more often during the night. Also, avoid stimulants like caffeine and tobacco in the evening — their effects can last up to 8 hours. And finally, eating big or spicy meals can cause indigestion, making it hard to sleep.
- Don’t just lie there. Waiting for sleep that doesn’t come is frustrating and can actually raise your anxiety levels. If after an hour of relaxing in bed you still can’t sleep, go into another room and try a relaxing activity like yoga or meditation until you feel drowsy.
- See a specialist. Don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor for a referral to a sleep professional. A sleep specialist can assess your sleep complaint and guide appropriate therapy. There are many effective therapies for insomnia including cognitive-behavioral therapy, medical therapies and short-term use of prescription medications.
You may also be asked to participate in a sleep study. A sleep study is a noninvasive, pain-free test that helps your doctor identify disorders like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome that could be the root cause of your lack of rest. During the test, you’ll be hooked up to sensors that monitor and collect data about your body, like brain waves and breathing patterns, while you sleep. Afterward, your doctor will use the detailed information that the test generates to develop the best treatment plan for you.