If a good night’s sleep has been eluding you lately, here’s the lowdown on how to get the rest you need.
By Stacey Stapleton
The skinny on sleep
The hours you spend in dreamland may seem like downtime, but it’s really the most active part of your day. While we’re asleep, our bodies go through a five-stage cycle (lasting anywhere from 90 to 110 minutes) that repeats itself throughout the night. During stage one, muscle activity starts to slow and we can still be easily awakened. At stage two, eye movements stop, brain waves slow, and we drift into a deeper sleep. In stages three and four, we fall into the deepest and most restorative phase of slumber, from which it’s very difficult to be roused. During this time our brain waves slow to a crawl; there is no eye movement or muscle activity, and we are completely at rest. Finally we move into the REM (or rapid eye movement) stage, in which our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, our heart rate drops, blood pressure rises, and our eyes flutter quickly in different directions. The REM stage of sleep is also when we dream, and if you wake up during this period it is often easy to recall your dreams in vivid detail.
So is it all about quantity … or quality?
If you’ve been facing the day bleary-eyed lately, you’re not alone. According to recent studies, a whopping 70 percent of adults don’t get enough sleep, and women suffer in greater numbers than men. Experts believe this is due to the fact that women tend to worry and stress over things more at night than do their partners.
But what exactly constitutes enough sleep? Federico Cerrone, MD, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Overlook Hospital, says the average adult should get between seven and eight hours of sleep per night. “Although it often seems like you’re getting by on just six hours of sleep,” he explains, “all the evidence shows you’ll actually perform better throughout your day if you consistently get an hour or two more.” And while it’s vital to log as many hours of sleep as you can, the quality of your sleep is just as important for making your slumber as restorative as it can be. Here are a few simple strategies to help you get the best rest possible.
- Stay on schedule. “Sleeping and waking times should be as consistent as possible,” says Cerrone.
- Don’t smoke. Smokers tend to sleep very lightly, have decreased amounts of REM sleep, and wake frequently during the night—sometimes after just three or four hours—because of nicotine withdrawal.
- Jettison the java. We all know that caffeine stimulates the brain and keeps you awake, so Cerrone suggests avoiding coffee and tea after 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
- Skip that “nightcap.” Yes, it’s true, alcohol is a sedative and having a drink close to bedtime may make you feel drowsy initially, but as your body metabolizes the alcohol it actually has the opposite effect, preventing you from getting a deep, restful sleep and allowing you to be awakened more easily.
- Work out early in the day. Regular exercise will help you sleep better, but don’t pump iron close to bedtime since the adrenaline rush may keep you awake.
- Chill out. “Our bodies sleep best in rooms that are kept cool,” explains Cerrone. Start at about 70 degrees and adjust the temperature up or down to your liking.
- Don’t nod off with the TV on. Television frequencies are stimulating to the brain and will cause you to sleep restlessly, so keep your bedroom dark and quiet. If you need noise to keep your mind from wandering, try a white-noise machine or a fan.
- Change the scenery. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep after waking in the middle of the night, Cerrone advises getting out of bed and leaving the bedroom. Then sit in the dark, read, or listen to soothing music until you feel sleepy.
- Let go. Anxiety over not being able to sleep often contributes to insomnia. “Relax and clear your mind for about 30 minutes before heading to bed,” says Cerrone. Read, take a warm bath, or just rest in a favorite chair. Hitting the sheets right after dealing with a pile of laundry or dirty dishes is not conducive to quality snoozing.
- Soothe your senses. Some aromas, like lavender and chamomile, can be sleep-inducing, so try placing a sachet or reed diffuser next your bed (but never a burning candle).
Why all the fuss about sleep?
Aside from feeling less than your best when you’re exhausted, prolonged sleep deprivation can cause myriad health problems. While we rest, our bodies recharge their vital systems, which keeps us functioning at top speed. Naturally, when that renewal is disrupted, a variety of consequences—ranging from annoying to potentially life-threatening—can ensue. These include …
- Memory loss: A recent study found that the REM stage of sleep helps the brain log new information, so not getting enough sleep or getting only poor-quality rest can lead to forgetfulness and even trouble conquering new tasks.
- Bad moods: Sleep deprivation will leave you irritable, impatient, and unable to concentrate; it also leads to poor judgment and slower reaction time. Prolonged sleeping problems can even result in or exacerbate depression.
- Premature aging: Listen up, ladies! While we sleep, our bodies secrete growth and repair hormones that aid in cell renewal and keep skin bright and firm. Lack of sleep or poor-quality shut-eye causes a decrease in these hormones. (Guess that’s why they call it beauty sleep …)
- More colds: Sleep helps the body stockpile energy and boosts the immune system. If you’re wiped out, your body is less able to fend off colds and even less able to heal from more serious illnesses.
- Safety concerns: When you’re not sleeping properly at night, you’re more likely to doze off during the day while performing simple tasks like driving. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that around 100,000 car accidents each year can be linked to driver fatigue.
- Packing on the pounds: Believe it or not, sleep deprivation can make you fat. Not only do you not have the energy to exercise, but your body also naturally craves more carbohydrates when you’re tired. Here’s what happens: When you’re not sleeping well, levels of the hormone that triggers appetite rise and levels of the hormone that controls appetite and aids in the processing of carbohydrates drop. Prolonged sleep loss will actually make you hungrier and less able to burn calories.
By breaking some anti-sleep lifestyle habits and making a few simple sleep modifications, you can improve both the quantity and quality of your slumber. You won’t sleep like a baby (who needs to wake up for a 3 a.m. feeding anyway?), but you’ll get the sleep you need now for the adult that you are today.
To contact the Center for Sleep Medicine, call (866) 618-3274.