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Jun 14, 2011

Getting More Restful Sleep

We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep- this should tell us how essential sleep is for a healthy, well-functioning body.  However, many of us do not listen to our bodies, and over the last 50 years, the average adult in the US gets less than 6.5 hours of sleep rather than the recommended 8.  Many studies assert that people perform better and get more out of their lives with 7-8 hours of sleep, so the trend of declining sleep is troubling.

Many factors can contribute to poor sleep- aging, lack of physical activity, medications, alcohol use, dietary insufficiencies, and distractions (a partner who snores, a bedroom that does not become fully dark, etc.).  In addition to these factors, such things as limited exposure to light, especially sunlight (the natural regulator of the sleep/wake cycle) can adversely affect a person's sleep.  Giving the body proper cues is especially important, but in our modern age, increasingly difficult.  Staring at a computer screen until late at night, watching TV in the bedroom, working in poorly lit environments- all of these will throw the natural circadian rhythms out of balance, further reducing a person's ability to get natural, full, restful sleep.

But what of it?  Surely sleep can't be *THAT* important?  Or can it?  It turns out the answer is a resounding yes- sleep, GOOD sleep, will improve quality of life in many ways.  These include reduction in pain, enhanced mood, memory, and concentration, as well as enabling people to be more productive.  It can also help you to LOOK better- the old rub about "beauty sleep" was not just idle talk.  Nordic researchers, in several studies published in the journal BMJ, showed that people who lacked sleep were thought to look less attractive to observers.  Research has even shown lack of sleep can contribute to obesity- lack of sleep can cause an imbalance of the hypothalamus and hormones that play a role in our desire to eat. 

What can we do to make sure we are getting sleep, and enough of it?  Here are some tips: 

§  Ensure that your sleeping area is dedicated to *just* sleep.  Don't use it for work, or study, or any other stressful activity.  Watching TV in your bedroom is also not recommended.

§  Establish a regular sleep schedule, where you go to bed at about the same time each night if possible. 

§  Avoid stimulating activities at least an hour before bed.  This includes watching TV or using the computer. 

§  Exercise on a regular basis during the day, but avoid intense physical exercise within about 3 hours of bedtime.  

§  Don’t eat a large meal before bed, but avoid going to bed hungry.  A small snack containing protein before bed can be extremely helpful.  Try a small piece of fruit with nut butter. 

§  Put yourself in a relaxed state, preparing your mind and body for rest.  Drink a cup of warm herbal tea, take a hot bath, meditate or do yoga/tai chi. 

§  Ensure that your sleeping area is dark.  Remove any electronic devices or flashing lights that may compromise the darkness.  

Dr. Shana McQueen