There is nothing as refreshing as a good night's sleep. On the other hand, the consequences of insufficient or poor quality sleep are profound.
There is no question about it;sleep is absolutely essential to good physical and mental health. National Sleep Awareness Week starts on March 5th, and with 40–60 million Americans affected by some type of sleep disorder each year, it is clear that many of us need help “turning ourselves off” in an age where we are quite literally on all the time.
Dr. Gary Kaplan, director of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine, says that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep every night. “Sleep deprivation -- caused by insufficient sleep or poor quality of sleep -- impairs the body’s immune system, physical reflexes, emotional stability and cognitive functions, such as the capacity to focus one’s attention, memory, decision-making and the ability to complete complex creative activities or mathematical calculations. In fact, according to medical research, if you are sleeping an average of only five to six hours a night, the odds are that your ability to think and function on a day-to-day basis is equivalent to that of someone who is operating under the influence of alcohol!”
Kaplan adds, “Severe sleep deprivation also may lead to weight gain; an increase in muscle, joint and nerve pain; depression and even hallucinations.” A new study from Norway even suggests that women who suffer with sleep problems are three times more likely to develop the pain disorder fibromyalgia compared with their better-rested peers.
There are a large variety of sleep disorders. Some are caused by physical problems, such as an airway obstruction that leads to sleep apnea or when chronic pain or indigestion/reflux causes insomnia. Sleep problems can occur as a side effect of taking certain medications or supplements. They can also be created by emotional difficulties including depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and anxiety about life situations. In many cases, there are several factors contributing to sleep disturbance, including anxiety about the sleep deprivation itself. Some commonly-diagnosed sleep disorders are listed below:
- Insomnia – Inability to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes.
- Dyssomnia– Frequent awakenings throughout the night and/or early-morning awakenings.
- Restless Leg Syndrome– When lying in bed, unpleasant “crawling” sensations in the legs that create an irresistible and sleep-disruptive urge to move one’s legs.
- Sleepwalking– Walking during sleep or engaging in other activities, such as eating, that are normally associated with wakefulness.
- Sleep Apnea– Obstruction of airway during sleep, causing breathing irregularities that interrupt and interfere with sleep. Sufferers are at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Snoring may be a sign or symptom of sleep apnea, so it’s something you should mention to your doctor.
So, how do we take the first steps in improving the quality of our sleep? Identifying if you have a sleep disorder is the first step and Dr. Kaplan says a good place to start is to ask yourself if you frequently get sleepy or doze off while doing the quiet activities: reading, watching TV, driving a car, riding as a passenger in a car, or simply sitting and talking after a meal? Depending upon your symptoms, your physician may determine that you are a candidate for a sleep study. “Another step you can take is to begin keeping a sleep diary, documenting your daily activities -- including your sleep activities (i.e., tossing and turning, waking in the middle of the night, sleep walking, grinding teeth, etc.). Take careful note of the times you actually get good sleep versus the times you don’t. If you are attempting to heal from an acute injury or a chronic illness, your treatment program will be greatly enhanced by your commitment to proper sleep hygiene.”
Dr. Kaplan offers the following tips that you can start immediately to help ensure you get the rest you need:
- Plan your daily schedule to allow 7-9 hours for sleeping.
- Keep a consistent sleep pattern, even on weekends.
- Eliminate caffeine from your diet or reduce your consumption to one cup of coffee, tea or one soda/day. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it takes 6 hours or more for your body to metabolize.
- Take B-vitamins and ginseng in the morning, not before bedtime.
- Get regular exercise (3-4 times a week).
- Create a bedtime-relaxation routine where you: Get ready for bed at the same time each night; Take a hot shower or bath before bed; Enjoy a cup of chamomile tea before sleep; Avoid alcohol near bedtime as it inhibits sleep continuation; Read a book, rather than watch TV (watching television actually stimulates the mind); Get your problems “off your mind” and onto paper by journaling, so they can be dealt with in an orderly way in the future, and; Make sure that sleeping conditions are comfortable (proper temperature and darkness).
In sum, sleep is neuroregenerative; to maintain optimal physical and mental health it is absolutely essential to give your body the sleep it needs. If you think you may have a sleep disorder, don’t delay testing and treatment. Alternative approaches, such as mind/body relaxation techniques, acupuncture, herbal and homeopathic remedies, prescription medication and lifestyle changes, such as better nutrition and increased exercise, can improve both your sleep and your overall health. To fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, consider making some of the above changes in your routine. Your body and mind will thank you!
Additional Resources on Sleep Disorders and Treatments:
National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center on Sleep Disorders
National Sleep Foundation
About Dr. Gary Kaplan and The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine: The Center’s founder and medical director is Dr. Gary Kaplan. Board-certified in Family Medicine, Pain Medicine and Medical Acupuncture, Dr. Kaplan is also a Clinical Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and he has served as a consultant at the National Institutes of Medicine (NIH). To learn more about The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine, visit the website at www.kaplanclinic.com.
*”Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. National Institutes of Health. 21 May 2007. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm 27 Feb. 2012
* Dinges DF. Cumulative Sleepiness, Mood Disturbance Increases and Psychomotor-vigilance Performance Decrements During a Week of Sleep Restricted to 4-5 hours Per Night. Sleep. 1997, April; 20(4): 267-277.
* Mork, P. J. and Nilsen, T. I. L. (2012), Sleep problems and risk of fibromyalgia: Longitudinal data on an adult female population in Norway. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 64: 281–284. doi: 10.1002/art.33346.