The recent “spring forward” of the hour hand always generates rumblings in homes across America, including mine. Losing that hour of sleep every spring emphasizes our sleep habits and we find ourselves struggling to get adjusted to daylight saving time yet again. Thank goodness for coffee!
Sleep seems so simple, yet it is a very complex biological process and it is as essential as food and water for our survival. We spend roughly one-third of our lives, or eight hours each day — sleeping. Without sleep, our brains are slower to respond, and we can’t concentrate, learn, or create new memories. Recent research also suggests that while we sleep, our bodies clean house and rid the brain of toxins that build up during our waking hours. It’s no surprise that we have a spring in our step after a good night’s sleep, and we drag ourselves through the day when we don’t rest well.
Our ages, daily routines, what we eat and drink, and medications are big factors affecting our sleep. In today’s society of round-the-clock distractions, crazy work schedules, and too much screen time, it is even more important to make a good night’s sleep a priority for our health. Sleep disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome, can also negatively impact our sleep quality. Adults should sleep at least seven hours each night for good health. However, more than a third of Americans report they get insufficient sleep. But how can we improve our own sleep stats?
Daily routine plays a key role in improving our sleep habits. Consistent wake-up and bedtimes, even on our days off, are essential. Regular bedtime rituals, turning off the computer, phone, and TV, and avoiding caffeine, all help to wind down in the evening to prepare us for rest. Avoiding heavy meals and alcohol in the evening helps prevent frequent wake-ups during the night.
Although medical experts agree that 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise is essential for good health, make sure you finish your workout at least two hours before bedtime. Don’t go to bed unless you’re sleepy, and if you don’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes, get up and do a quiet activity that will also let you avoid bright lights and electronics. On the rare occasion I have trouble sleeping, my go-to activities include folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, or other quiet tasks around the house that won’t wake up the rest of my family.
Sleep disorders also disturb a restful night’s sleep for about 70 million Americans. More than just an annoyance, sleep disorders increase the risk of serious health conditions.
For instance, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects about 25% of American adults and is characterized by habitual snoring, lack of energy, and excessive sleepiness that is caused by repetitive collapse of the airway during sleep. This impaired breathing during sleep can trigger the “fight or flight” response, jolting the body with spikes in blood pressure, fluctuations in oxygen levels, and increased adrenaline.
Therefore, while we try to catch our nightly Z’s, obstructive sleep apnea episodes counter-productively create damaging distress on our bodies that cause chronic health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and weakened immune system.
Ever lie awake and watch the clock? Many of us have experienced occasional sleepless nights due to the worries and stress of our days. However, if you regularly take 30 minutes or more to fall asleep, have a difficult time staying asleep, or wake up too early, you’re in good company with at least 30% of American adults. Chronic insomnia affects women more often than men, and can be more prevalent with older adults. Many of life’s complications can contribute to insomnia, including stress, depression, divorce, death of a loved one, work schedule, and travel across time zones.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) results from the way the nerves in the body and the brain communicate, leaving sleepless sufferers with the urgent need to move their legs, often accompanied by tingling, burning or throbbing in the legs. Triggered by rest, sitting, or lying down, the condition is relieved by movement and walking around. It is estimated that around 10% of Americans may have RLS, with women being more likely to be affected. It also appears that genetics might play a role.
If you think you may have any symptoms regularly interfering with a good night’s sleep, take notice and discuss it with your medical professional as these concerns may signal more significant health issues. For more information on healthy sleep habits and sleep disorders, see the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (aasm.org), National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) and Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov/sleep).
Remember, without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds!
Rebecca Zuspan, Ph.D., is Director for the Creating Healthy Communities Program at the Meigs County Health Department.