How you feel right now — alert, tired, calm or stressed — may well be due to how you slept last night. About 65 percent of America’s adults report difficulty sleeping at least a few nights per week, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Too little sleep can leave you stressed, sad, angry and tired during the day.
Health experts say sleep is as essential as food and water. In fact, your emotional and physical health depends on your getting between seven and nine uninterrupted hours of sleep every night. During sleep, blood pressure drops, breathing rate slows, the body secretes important hormones and energy is restored to mind and body.
Lack of sleep makes it harder for you to learn, remember, concentrate and make good decisions. Lack of sleep reduces your productivity and ability to cope with stress. Getting proper sleep can also be a safety issue. More than 100,000 auto crashes each year may be linked to tired drivers, resulting in approximately 1,500 deaths and tens of thousands of serious injuries.
No substitute for sleep
“Everyone is busy,” says Hany Haddad, M.D., medical director for Community Health Network’s sleep wake disorders centers. “We continually try to fit more and more into our lives, and when we have to choose what to give up, we choose sleep,” says Dr. Haddad.Without proper sleep, however, you’ll feel less energetic and more overwhelmed by a full schedule. “We know that healthy adults need an average of 8.125 hours of sleep per night,” says Dr. Haddad. “Anything less than that, over time, can negatively affect one’s health, mental ability and the ability to function at work and interact with friends and family.”
Certain people are especially susceptible to sleeping problems: shift workers, students, travelers and those suffering from high stress, depression or chronic pain. If you feel sleepy or tend to doze off during quiet activities such as watching TV, reading or working at your desk, you are probably sleep-deprived.
What you can do
You don’t have to take lack of sleep lying down. First, take a look at the “sleep stealers” in your life that get in the way of a restful night. Next, figure out what changes you can make to make it easier to get sleep. Sometimes small changes can make all the difference. Start by answering the following questions:
Do you go to bed and get up — even on weekends — on a regular schedule? Constantly changing your sleep schedule can make it harder for you to sleep restfully. Start by choosing a regular bedtime and wake time that allows for seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
Do you drink alcohol? You may think that having an alcoholic nightcap allows you to relax and go to sleep. Alcohol actually makes sleep less restful, causing you to wake up at night. Avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime.
Do you consume caffeine? Caffeine stays in your system for three to five hours on average — but sometimes even 12 hours — after you have a food or beverage with caffeine. So your best bet is to avoid anything with caffeine in the afternoon and evening. And don’t forget that sleep-disrupting caffeine is found in certain sodas, teas and energy drinks; coffee ice cream; chocolate; caffeinated water and some over-the-counter drugs, such as Excedrin.
Do you smoke? Here’s another good reason to quit smoking: Nicotine is a stimulant, and when you sleep, you experience nicotine withdrawal symptoms, making sleep less restful.
Do you eat right before bed? Eating a meal, especially a heavy meal, before sleeping can cause discomfort and even heartburn, which make sleep difficult. If you are hungry, try eating a light snack, such as a bowl of cereal, to ward off late-night hunger pangs.
Do you exercise? If so, you’re taking steps to help improve your sleep time. Exercise can help you get to sleep more quickly and may help deepen your sleep. Just be sure to exercise three or more hours before bedtime, or you may find it harder to fall asleep.
Is your bedroom a good place to sleep? Start with your mattress: Is it comfortable? Do you wake up feeling refreshed? If your answer is no, consider getting a new mattress. For sleep to be restful, your bed must be comfortable. Also, is your bedroom a comfortable temperature? Is it dark and quiet? Making small changes — such as buying curtains or blinds that block out early-morning light or getting earplugs to block out noise — can make all the difference.
If you need more sleep in your life, you can take these steps to make sleep a priority. If you think you might have a sleep disorder, take our sleep quiz.
Commons sleep problems
“Ten to 12 million people have sleep disorders, and only about 2 million seek treatment,” says Hany Haddad, M.D., medical director for Community Health Network’s sleep wake disorders centers. The reason? “Some people don’t realize treatment is available, some don’t realize they have a medical problem, and some don’t realize that all the symptoms they’re experiencing are related, and that they should be discussing it with a physician,” says Dr. Haddad. Here’s what you should know about the two most common sleep disorders.
Difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently and waking up before dawn are all symptoms of insomnia. Stress is often the biggest cause. Treating insomnia early on, usually with behavior training and occasionally medication, can help prevent it from becoming an ongoing problem.
Most cases of sleep apnea occur when the muscles in the throat and tongue relax, temporarily blocking airflow through a person’s nose or mouth. People with sleep apnea usually snore loudly and may make choking, snorting or gasping sounds as they try to breathe. Sleep apnea can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, depression and sexual dysfunction. The disorder worsens high blood pressure and may lead to heart attack and stroke.
Losing weight can help relieve apnea symptoms. The most common treatment, however, is nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This device involves the use of a mask worn over the nose at night to help prevent breathing interruptions.