by Lisa Egan
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. ~Irish Proverb
Are you getting enough sleep on a regular basis? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50-70% of us have trouble sleeping, leading the agency to declare insufficient sleep as a “public health epidemic.”
How much sleep you need depends on several factors, including your age, lifestyle, and overall health. The general recommendation for people age 18 and over is 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Yet, polls and surveys show that 20-30% of us get less than 6 hours of sleep per night. And, sleep quality is even more important than quantity, so even if you are sleeping for 7-9 hours per night, but you toss and turn for much of that time, you might be sleep-deprived.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are questions you can ask yourself to help you determine if the quantity and quality of your sleep is sufficient:
Are you productive, healthy and happy on seven hours of sleep? Or does it take you nine hours of quality ZZZs to get you into high gear? Do you have health issues such as being overweight? Are you at risk for any disease? Are you experiencing sleep problems? Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day? Do you feel sleepy when driving?
The organization also explains that researchers are studying two different factors that determine how much sleep an individual needs:
Another reason there is “no magic number” for your sleep results from two different factors that researchers are learning about: a person’s basal sleep need – the amount of sleep our bodies need on a regular basis for optimal performance – and sleep debt , the accumulated sleep that is lost to poor sleep habits, sickness, awakenings due to environmental factors or other causes.
Two studies suggest that healthy adults have a basal sleep need of seven to eight hours every night, but where things get complicated is the interaction between the basal need and sleep debt. For instance, you might meet your basal sleep need on any single night or a few nights in a row, but still have an unresolved sleep debt that may make you feel more sleepy and less alert at times, particularly in conjunction with circadian dips , those times in the 24-hour cycle when we are biologically programmed to be more sleepy and less alert, such as overnight hours and mid-afternoon. You may feel overwhelmingly sleepy quite suddenly at these times, shortly before bedtime or feel sleepy upon awakening. The good news is that some research suggests that the accumulated sleep debt can be worked down or “paid off.”
Sleep deprivation carries numerous health and safety implications, and some are serious:
- Poor work performance
- Car accidents
- Relationship problems
- Reduced quality of life
- Mood problems like anger and depression
- Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, hypertension, cancer, and increased mortality
If you are one of the millions of people who just aren’t getting enough Zzzz’s, there are things you can do to naturally improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
- Establish consistent sleep and wake times – even on the weekends
- Create a comfortable and inviting sleep environment – your bedroom should be calming, cool (65 degrees is optimal, but no warmer than 75 degrees), and dark
- Create a bedtime routine – turn off electronic devices, take a relaxing bath or read a book (not IN bed), or listen to soothing music
- Avoid using your computer or watching TV while in bed
- Finish eating 2-3 hours before you go to bed
- Exercise regularly (but not for a few hours before bed – it may keep you awake if done too close to bedtime)
- Avoid caffeine too close to bedtime
If you go to bed and aren’t sleep within 3o minutes, go to another room and do something until you are tired. Staying in bed while not being able to sleep can create anxiety that you may later associate with your sleeping environment.
If you are one of those people whose brain decides it is time to go into overdrive and think about everything you need to do the next day as soon as you get in bed, try this trick: write the concerns down on a notepad next to your bed. If things you have on your mind wake you in the middle of the night, write those down too and try to get right back to sleep.
White noise can help you relax and fall asleep too:
White noise works by reducing the difference between background sounds and a “peak” sound, like a door slamming, giving you a better chance to sleep through it undisturbed. If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, creating a constant ambient sound could help mask activity from inside and outside the house.
In your bedroom, white noise can be created by a sound conditioner, a fan or an air purifier, anything that is a consistent and soothing backdrop throughout the night. You might want to experiment with the volume and type to find the white noise that works best for you, or if you have a sleeping partner, the sound that works for both of you.
The smell of your bedroom can also affect your sleep. Lavender has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, which could help put you in a more relaxed state. In one study, researchers monitored the brain waves of subjects at night and found that those who sniffed lavender before bed had more deep sleep and felt more vigorous in the morning. Another study of infants found that they cried less and slept more deeply after a bath with lavender scented oils. Try lavender oils, lotion, candles, or sachets in your room. Also, clean, fresh-smelling sheets can help you feel soothed and relaxed.
Eating kiwifruit an hour before bed has been shown to improve both sleep quality and quantity, according to researchers at Taiwan’s Taipei Medical University:
After 4 weeks of kiwi consumption, researchers found significant improvements to several measures of sleep:
- People fell asleep more quickly. Sleep onset latency—the amount of time it takes to fall asleep after going to bed—decreased by 35.4%.
- People slept more soundly. Waking time after sleep onset—the amount of time spent in periods of wakefulness after initially falling asleep—fell 28.9%.
- Sleep quality improved. Scores on a standardized sleep quality questionnaire—where lower scores mean better sleep—decreased by 42.4%.
- Sleep efficiency—a measurement of the amount of time spent actually sleeping compared to the total amount of time spent in bed—increased by 5.41%.
- People slept more overall. Total sleep time among the volunteers increased by 13.4%.
Other foods that may help you get a good night’s rest include magnesium and potassium rich foods like dark leafy greens, bananas, nuts, seeds, citrus, tomatoes, and whole grains. Foods high in calcium like dairy, soy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains help to boost melatonin levels and improve sleep. Camomile and lemon balm teas also have sleep-inducing qualities.
Keeping a sleep dairy can help you track what does and doesn’t work for you. Write down the following items in a notebook:
- The time you went to bed and woke up
- How long and well you slept
- When you were awake during the night
- How much caffeine or alcohol you consumed and when
- What/when you ate and drank
- What emotion or stress you had
- What drugs or medications you took
If you do experience insomnia or trouble staying asleep, remember that worrying about it may cause you to get trapped in a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. Try various combinations of the tips and tricks above to see what works for you.