It seems that too often many of us are running on “fumes” and caffeine. Our fast-paced lives are busy and hectic, and getting enough sleep isn’t always our first priority. Many of us are chronically tired and sleep-deprived. The day’s events, worries, and stress can keep us from falling asleep, or wake us up in the middle of the night. Not only does sleep affect mood, but mood and mental states can also affect our sleep. Anxiety increases agitation, which makes it harder to sleep. Stress and tension also affect sleep by making the body awake and alert (Epstein, 2014). It’s like a vicious circle. We can’t sleep because we’re stressed, but we need to sleep to better manage our stress! Additionally, a number of sleep disorders can also wreak havoc with our ability to get the hours of sleep we require.
Sleep should not be a luxury that we only grant ourselves on Saturday mornings. It’s a necessity if we want to have a healthy mind and body. Sleep gives us a chance to recharge, heal, and process our experiences. Lack of enough good quality sleep not only makes us grumpy, but it can also negatively impact our memory, our mood, and our overall health and well-being. Sleep deprivation can even affect our appearance. Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to make sure we get the sleep we need to be at our very best when the dreaded alarm clock sounds.
The Case for a Good Night’s Sleep
When we sleep, our mind and body reaps a number of benefits. In fact, sleep is as necessary to us as food, air, and water. The amount of sleep we each need depends on a number of factors including our age, lifestyle, and overall health. However, sleep experts generally recommend that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Generally, if you feel drowsy during the course of the day, and you’re downing caffeine or energy drinks to stay alert, you’re probably not getting enough sleep (Let Sleep Work for You, 2014). We need to make sleep a priority if we want to be at our best. According the WebMD Sleep Disorders Center (2014), sleep helps us in many ways.
· Better Overall Health: Numerous studies have demonstrated that lack of sleep is linked with some serious health problems including heart attacks, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
· Stronger Immunity: Can getting enough sleep keep you from catching that bug that’s going around the office? It’s possible. In one study, researchers tracked over 150 people and monitored their sleep habits for two weeks. Then, they were exposed to a cold virus. The people who got seven hours of sleep a night or less were almost three times as likely to catch the cold as the people who got at least eight hours of sleep a night (Morgan-Griffin, 2011).
· Less Pain: If you suffer from chronic pain, or more acute pain from an injury, then getting enough sleep may actually help you to hurt less. Many studies have shown a link between sleep loss and lower pain threshold. Unfortunately, being in pain can also make it hard to sleep. If pain keeps you up at night, talk with a doctor about medication options, or see a counselor to learn some strategies to get a good night’s rest. Research has found that good quality sleep can actually be an effective adjunct to medication for the reduction of pain (Morgan-Griffin, 2011).
· Lower Risk of Injury: Getting enough sleep may actually help keep you safe. Sleep deprivation has been linked with many disasters, including the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. The Institute of Medicine estimates that one out of five auto accidents in the U.S. results from drowsy driving -- that's about 1 million crashes a year (Morgan-Griffin, 2011). When we’re over tired, we are less physically coordinated, and our reaction time is slowed. We are more prone to accidents when we are sleepy. Many studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation is dangerous. Sleep-deprived people have been shown to drive as badly, or even worse, than people who are intoxicated. Being drowsy is the brain’s last step before actually falling asleep. Caffeine and other stimulants cannot overcome the effects of severe sleep deprivation (Brain Basics, 2014).
· Better Mood: Lack of sleep can really impact our mood and emotions. When we’re exhausted, we’re more likely to be irritable and a little more sensitive. Not getting enough sleep can reduce your ability to regulate your emotions. This means you’re more likely to burst into tears, snap at your kids, or take things too personally. Studies have shown that even losing a few hours of sleep can have a significant effect on mood. A University of Pennsylvania study found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep per night for one week felt more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood (Epstein, 2014). On a more humorous note, being over tired can also cause you to get a case of the uncontrollable giggles!
· Better Weight Control: If you are working to maintain your weight, or lose weight, getting enough sleep is essential. Sleep loss is associated with an increased risk of weight gain. Part of the reason for this is that you are just too tired to cook a healthy meal or go to the gym. Another reason is that sleep affects hormones. The hormone leptin play an important role in making you feel full. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your leptin levels can drop. This means that when you get really tired you might also get really hungry—and you may crave foods that are high in fat and calories (Morgan-Griffin, 2011).
· Better Sex Life: There's evidence that in men, impaired sleep can be associated with lower testosterone levels. In a study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, up to 26% of people say that their sex lives suffer because they're just too tired.
· Clearer Thinking: When we’re trying to function on too little sleep, we can feel like our brain is in a fog. Everything seems slowed down. We can be easily confused, and just not as quick as we are after a restful night. Lack of sleep can affect our cognitive processes, ability to pay attention, and decision-making. Studies have shown that people who are deprived of quality sleep do much worse on things like math and logic problems compared to when they are well rested (Morgan-Griffin, 2011).
· Better Memory: Feeling forgetful? Can’t remember where you left your keys? Lack of sleep could be to blame. Studies have shown that while we sleep, our brains process and consolidate our memories from the day. We are creating memories and processing the day’s events while we sleep. If we don't get enough quality sleep, those memories might not be consolidated properly, or they may be lost all together.
The multitude of benefits we gain from sleep can motivate us all to turn out the lights a little earlier. There is no doubt that good sleep helps ensure good physical and mental health. But what can we do if a good night’s sleep is eluding us?
The Things That Keep Us Up at Night
Being unable to sleep at night (or whenever you need to), regardless of the reason, can be incredibly frustrating. The world outside is quiet and you are up watching T.V, pacing around the house, trying to read, or tossing and turning. You wake up exhausted and not at all ready for the challenges of the day. We know that stress, tension, and anxiety can steal our sleep, but according to the Mayo Clinic (2014), there are also lifestyle issues, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions that can cause loss of sleep. These include:
- Conditions that cause chronic (ongoing) pain, including arthritis and headache disorders
- Conditions that make it hard to breathe, such as asthma and heart failure
- An overactive thyroid
- Gastrointestinal disorders, such as heartburn
- Sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep-related breathing problems
- Menopause symptoms and hot flashes
- Medication side effects
- Work schedule (e.g. work at night, or variable shifts)
- Overuse of caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and other sedatives
- Primary Insomnia: This is a type of insomnia that does not seem to be caused by another condition (What is Insomnia, 2014).
Sleep is so important to every part of our lives, and essential for our health and well-being. Too many of us are chronically over-tired, and stumbling through our days. Whatever the reason for your sleep difficulties, there are many things you can do to help yourself get some quality shut-eye. It may take some time, persistence, and patience, but the results will be well worth your effort.
Counseling May Help You Get the Sleep You Need
When sleep is eluding you more often than you would like, it’s time to take action. If you are under a lot of emotional stress, or going through a life transition or crisis, it can be helpful to talk with a counselor. Counseling can help you to work through stress and emotions that may be keeping you up at night. It can help treat the causes of insomnia, and not just the symptoms. One type of therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can be particularly helpful for overcoming chronic insomnia. Sometimes, insomnia is related to depression or anxiety, and counseling can help alleviate these conditions, resulting in better sleep. Additionally, CBT is usually time-limited, with patients reporting results in six weeks, or even less, with no medication required (Connor, 2011).
The Importance of Good Sleep Hygiene
In addition to counseling, there are some other strategies you can use to end those sleepless nights. Sleep Hygiene just means developing good sleep habits to help ensure consistent and quality sleep. Experts at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Sleep Disorders Center (Sleep Hygiene, 2013) offer some helpful hints for restful sleep.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. The body "gets used" to falling asleep at a certain time, but only if this is relatively fixed. Even if you are retired or not working, this is an essential component of good sleeping habits.
- Avoid napping during the day. The late afternoon for most people tends "sleepy time." Taking a nap is not a bad thing to do, as long as you limit the name to no more than 30-45 minutes. Longer naps will likely interfere with sleep at night.
- Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime. Some people believe that alcohol will help them sleep better. Alcohol has an immediate sleep-inducing effect, but a few hours later as the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall, and there will be stimulant effect that can wake you up.
- Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime. This includes caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea and many sodas—even chocolate!.
- Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bedtime. These may keep your stomach awake, which will keep you awake.
- Don’t exercise right before bedtime. Regular exercise can help you sleep well. However, strenuous exercise within the 2 hours before bedtime can make it difficult to get to sleep.
- Use comfortable bedding. Uncomfortable bedding can prevent good sleep.
- Find a comfortable temperature setting for sleeping. If your bedroom is too cold or too hot, it can keep you awake. A cool (not cold) bedroom is often the best for sleeping.
- Block out all distracting noise, and eliminate as much light as possible.
- Reserve the bed for sleep and sex. Don't use the bed as an office, workroom or recreation room. Your body needs to associate the bed with sleeping.
- Develop a pre-sleep ritual. Pre-sleep rituals, such as a warm bath or a few minutes of reading, can help you sleep.
These are just a few strategies that can help eliminate those sleepless nights, and the exhaustion that follows the next day. Making the effort to improve your sleep will pay off in ways you may never expect. You will be rewarded with clearer thinking, a healthier body, a better memory, and no dark circles under your eyes!
Brain basics: Understanding sleep. (2014, July 25). Retrieved July 9, 2014, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm
Connor, E. (2010, January 19). Chronic Insomnia — Do You Need Counseling? Retrieved August 9, 2014, from http://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/insomnia/get-counseling-for-insomnia.aspx
Epstein, L. J., M.D. (2014). Sleep and Mood. Retrieved July 9, 2014, from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood
Let Sleep Work for You. (2014). Retrieved August 9, 2014, from http://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/let-sleep-work-you
Morgan- Griffin, R. (2011, December 27). Sleep and Health: 9 Surprising Reasons to Get More Sleep. Retrieved August 9, 2014, from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/9-reasons-to-sleep-more
Sleep hygiene. (2013, July 31). Retrieved July 9, 2014, from http://umm.edu/programs/sleep/patients/sleep-hygiene
What is insomnia? (2014). Retrieved August 9, 2014, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/inso/