I've Got to Get Some Sleep!
Are we a nation of sleepy people? Yes and we need to wake up to what this is doing to our health. Research shows that Americans are getting less and less sleep, and they're exhausted. Can a sleep-deprived country be efficient? A national commission set up to study the problem estimated that the cost of sleeplessness in accidents, low productivity, and illness was almost 16 billion dollars a year.
I interviewed Stanley Coren, author of Sleep Thieves, who says, "When you don't get enough sleep, it makes you clumsy, stupid, unhappy, and ultimately, dead."
We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, but we know very little about why we sleep. We do know it's important in repairing worn-out tissues, renewing brain structures, and releasing growth hormones. It's true: your kids really do grow overnight!
Stanley Coren says that "when you don't get enough sleep, one of the things that starts to happen is your ability to process information begins to stop. You actually act as though you're losing I.Q. points. In fact, if you lose an hour of sleep below eight hours, it's the equivalent of losing one point of I.Q." If you lose an hour below seven hours, you lose two points. And it adds up. So if you are losing two hours of sleep five days in a row, you've lost ten hours' worth of sleep—and fifteen points of I.Q. Being a person who suffers from constant sleep deprivation, I was anxious to ask if this loss was temporary or permanent—not that I was afraid of the answer or anything ...I'm happy to say that it is, in fact, temporary. But that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. When we "spring ahead" for daylight savings time, that hour of lost sleep causes a 7 percent rise in traffic accidents that day!
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Sleep needs change with age. If you have teenagers, you know that they can sleep for incredible lengths of time. At mid-life, most people sleep about seven and a half hours a night. As you get older, it's normal to sleep fewer hours, take more naps, and wake up more often at night.
But tallying hours spent under the sheets isn't a good guide to whether you've had enough sleep. Some people feel great on six hours of rest; others really need ten. The question is, are you getting enough sleep to feel refreshed, alert, and not terminally cranky?
In a perfect world, we'd all sleep until we awaken by ourselves. Alarm clocks would go out the window, which is certainly where I'd like to send mine most mornings!
But until that paradise arrives, here are some sleep suggestions:
- Don't try to squeeze in exercise right before bed. Give your muscles a rest from mid-evening on. Late afternoon exercise is probably ideal.
- Skip the after-dinner cappuccino. If you have caffeine two to four hours before bed, you'll probably toss and turn. Some people need to cut out coffee and all other caffeine products like chocolate, tea, and cola even earlier.
- Watch what you eat at the end of the day. A heavy evening meal, especially one that features spicy or gas-producing food, is also a recipe for poor sleep. The same goes for cigarettes and alcohol. You may think that alcohol makes you sleepy, but it actually disrupts your sleep.
- Eat a "sleep snack." Some experts believe that foods containing an amino acid (found in protein) called tryptophan can make you sleepy. Stanley Coren suggests that a glass of milk and a couple of aspirin might help if you're having sleep difficulties.
I asked my friend, registered dietician Michelle Daum for her take on this. "Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps induce a feeling of sleepiness and calm," she explained. She recommends small amounts of starchy carbohydrates, low in protein and fat, consumed an hour or two before bedtime.
Her favorites include:
- animal crackers
- dry non-sugary cereal
- an English muffin or a bagel
- baked bagel crisps
- rice cakes (not caramel)
- a low-fat toaster waffle
- oven-baked potato crisps
- graham crackers
- a bowl of hot oatmeal
- plain biscotti
- baked corn-tortilla chips
- Give yourself an hour to relax before you hit the hay. Develop a pre-sleep routine: listen to music, read, or take a warm (not hot) bath. Routines work for your kids—why not you?
- Create a restful environment. It's best to keep your bedroom a bit cool (60 to 65 degrees), dark, and quiet. Light and noise can affect the quality of your sleep even if they don't seem to wake you up. If you can't avoid them, try a sleeping mask and soft ear plugs.
- Consider a better mattress. If yours is too saggy, taut, or thin, it may be stealing your best sleep. When you shop for a new one, lie down for at least five minutes to see how it feels before you buy it. You deserve a decent introduction to something you'll cuddle up to eight hours a day.
- Forget sleeping in. You'll have more luck if you go to bed early than if you sleep late. By sleeping more than an hour past your usual wake-up time on the weekend, you can inadvertently reset your body clock and end up dragging on Monday morning. An early afternoon nap can also help catch up—but keep it under an hour.
- If you suffer from jet lag, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent it with small doses of melatonin, a hormone that affects your body clock, or with timed exposure to bright lights.
- If you can't fall asleep after twenty minutes, get up. Read a dull book, or do relaxation exercises. Go back to bed when you're sleepy. If you're not sleepy at all, don't get into bed. I often find that 20 minutes of meditation helps me get a full night's sleep.
If you honor your body, it will serve you well in return, in the present and for years to come. Getting started with healthy routines of diet, sleep, and exercise can be intimidating, but it's your body, it's your health, and you'll have yourself to thank!