March is Sleep Awareness Month!
How are your sleep habits looking these days? Statistics say most Americans are chronically sleep deprived. This affects us subtly, over time—the effects build until they are life threatening. Turns out, adequate sleep is a biological necessity for good health.
A night or two of sleep deprivation produces groggy, unfocused and sluggish thinking. These changes are accompanied by slower reaction times, increased appetite and being more emotional. Most of us compensate for these symptoms with caffeine or sugar. While these symptoms are noticeable, unseen genetic changes also occur.
After just a week of too little sleep, more than 700 genetic changes occur within the body eventually resulting in an increased risk of death, heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression and stroke.
Sleep loss is a public safety hazard and increases workplace accidents.
The National Sleep Foundation says the average adult needs 8.25 hours of sleep per night. Reducing sleep by 1.5 hours a night reduces alertness by about one-third.
If you think you’re doing well on less than seven hours per night, it might be that too little sleep is affecting your judgment. If you work in a profession where it’s important to be able to judge your level of functioning (think airline pilot, truck driver, equipment operator, surgeon), this can be a big problem.
- Drowsiness behind the wheel causes 100,000 auto accidents and 1,550 crash-related death each year, making it as risky as driving drunk. -National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- Sleep deprivation was also a factor in disasters like nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as well as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. -National Sleep Foundation
- Sleep-related workplace accidents and mistakes cost companies $31 billion each year. -Institute of Medicine of the National Academies
Poor sleep habits are often to blame for sleep deprivation.
We stay up late to complete the work project or binge watch a new season of our favorite series, get up early to make sure we get the kids to school on time and over-stimulate ourselves with substances and activities. Learning and practicing good “sleep hygiene” ourselves and teaching it to our children is essential for our health and the health of our families. While good sleep hygiene habits seem like common sense, living them out takes commitment and planning.
Tips to Help Improve Your Sleep
Better Sleep through Your Personal Habits:
- Set a consistent bedtime and waking time. Don’t vary the times by more than one hour otherwise your “internal clock” will need to reset itself, a process that can take up to three months.
- Avoid napping in the late afternoon.
- Limit your naps to 30-45 minutes.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine in the evenings. While alcohol makes you sleepy initially, a few hours after you have a drink, the alcohol level in your blood falls and produces a “wake-up effect.” Caffeine takes 14 hours to leave the blood stream and hides in innocuous places like teas and chocolate as well as coffee and soda.
- Engage in at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise daily. (But not within two hours of bedtime or it will substantially decrease your ability to fall asleep.)
- Get out into the sun—even in the winter. Research shows exposure to natural light helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
- Keep your room slightly cool.
- Wear comfortable clothing.
- Use comfortable bedding to promote staying asleep instead of waking to “rearrange.”
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible.
- Keep bedroom quiet or allow sounds which help you to get to sleep and stay asleep (sometimes “white noise”, such as a fan, is helpful).
- Use your bed for sleeping only, not as an office, workroom, or place to watch television. By reserving your bed for sleep you teach your body to pair going to bed with sleep.
Better Sleep through Your Bedtime Routine:
Parents create routines for their children to help them get ready for bed and sleep. Sometimes we forget these routines are also necessary for adults! Consider making some adjustments to your bedtime routine:
- Stop using all electronics one hour before you go to bed. Research shows that the light emitted by TVs, computers, video games and cell phones trick your brain into thinking it is daylight, engaging your brain and reducing your body’s ability to settle down for sleep.
- Avoid eating one hour before bed or eat only a small snack containing foods high in tryptophan (such as bananas, yogurt, whole grain cereal or toast).
- Take part in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing to reduce anxiety and muscle tension.
- Spend 10-15 minutes writing down the things you worry about so you can let go of them instead of carrying them to bed with you.
- Take a warm bath or reading a non-electronic book or magazine to help you relax and empty your mind.
Good sleep habits are essential to healthy relationships, mental health and physical health.
Practicing good sleep hygiene causes you to awake with a brighter outlook on the day, keeps you healthy, and improves your productivity. However, for some people sleep remains an issue even when practicing good sleep hygiene. If you consistently struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep, talk with your health care professionals.