Get Good ZZZs
Jun 01, 2009 10:55PM
You lie awake at night, tossing and turning, your mind racing. Some nights you have trouble falling asleep; on others, you wake in the wee hours and can’t return to sleep. If you aren’t getting a full night of restful slumber, you’re not alone.
According to the National Sleep Awareness Roundtable, more than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, while 20 million more report spells of insomnia related to heightened anxiety, stress and depression. Whatever the cause, lack of sleep can be simply maddening.
Darrel Drobnich, chief program officer of the roundtable, affirms that sleep is just as important as diet and exercise to our overall wellness. When we sleep soundly, our bodies and minds perform more efficiently. When we don’t, we lose the ability to concentrate on daily tasks, struggle with moodiness, experience problems with memory and fail to manage stress gracefully. More, sleep scientists worldwide are evaluating the correlation between lack of sleep and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, immune system dysfunction and other serious illnesses.
According to the American Sleep Association, the amount of sleep needed depends on the individual. On average, adults require seven to eight hours a day; infants, 16 hours; teenagers, nine.
The sleepless often seek relief with over-the-counter and prescription medications, but several more natural sleep-inducing habits may be just as effective at facilitating better shuteye. Before reaching for a sleep aid, try these suggestions:
Establish a schedule. For regular ZZZs, “Stick to a regular schedule; go to sleep and wake up at around the same times each day, even on weekends,” urges Drobnich. “Our bodies are on a 24-hour clock. Consistency strengthens our biological rhythm and helps us sleep soundly.”
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. Professionals agree that avoiding these substances for at least four hours before bedtime helps settle the body for a good night’s rest. Caffeine, found in coffee, teas, sodas and chocolate, is a stimulant that works to keep us awake or interrupt sleep later in the night. Although alcohol, a depressant, might make falling asleep easier, it can disrupt deep sleep later in the cycle. While tobacco products tend to make us feel relaxed, the nicotine they contain acts as a powerful stimulant that increases heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, making the smoker feel more alert, not ready for sleep.
Create the perfect sleep environment. “Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary,” counsels Drobnich. “Make sure that it is conducive to sleep and nothing else.” Keep the bedroom at an optimal temperature setting—neither too hot nor too cold. Use a comfortable mattress and pillow. Also, ensure that the room is as dark and quiet as possible. In homes and neighborhoods with lots of outside noise, try to block out sounds with a fan, white-noise machine or recordings of ocean waves or rain.
“People who have trouble falling or staying asleep also should avoid watching television, playing video games or working while in bed,” advises Drobnich. “You don’t want your brain to associate the bedroom with anything other than sleep and relaxation.”
Wind down. Drobnich also recommends establishing a relaxing bedtime routine to wind down in the hour before going to bed: soak in a warm bath, read a book, meditate or listen to calming music. By doing the same things each night and avoiding stimulation, we signal the body that it is time to rest.
Avoid eating and drinking near bedtime. A full stomach may keep some people awake at night, so don’t eat a heavy meal within two to three hours of bedtime (this also supports weight loss). To prevent sleep from being interrupted by a trip to the bathroom, don’t drink fluids after 8 p.m.
Exercise regularly. Studies show that regular exercise can improve nighttime rest, but try to finish the day’s workout at least five hours before bedtime.
Fight the urge to nap. If you already have trouble sleeping at night, a nap may aggravate the problem. If a nap is absolutely necessary, limit it to a brief, 15-to-20-minute snooze.
If these sleep-inducing techniques fail to solve sleeplessness, experts advise that we see a health care professional. The problem may involve sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or a more serious health problem.
Remember that almost everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time, but good habits set the stage for a restful night’s sleep. By making sleep a wellness priority, you will get back to getting some good ZZZs.