Get Better Sleep!

Sleep is fundamental to every aspect of our lives and well-being. Getting too-little sleep can wreak havoc on your physical health, your mental health and your relationships. Nothing works properly if the body doesn't get time to rest and restore.

Dr. Craig Schwimmer is the founder and medical director of The Snoring Center in Dallas, Texas. He offers tips on better sleep hygiene — a series of behaviors and patterns that promote good, healthy, restorative rest.

What Causes Insomnia?
Insomnia is difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep. You have a problem either falling or staying asleep despite the opportunity. Anxiety, worry, stress and maladaptive behaviors can all lead to insomnia. Thirty to 40 percent of adults have insomnia at some point, and it is becoming more common. With the state of the economy, people are having higher generalized stress and anxiety levels.  

Myths about Insomnia
People often believe the problem will go away on its own. Very often it requires a change in behavior to make things better. People believe that if they have insomnia, they're crazy, but this is not the case. People get into these maladaptive behaviors which worsens things.

For example:
  • Drinking alcohol to make yourself sleepy: That just compounds the problem because alcohol interferes with sleep architecture. It makes it easier for you to nod off but messes with your sleep cycle. You go to sleep but then go into alcohol withdrawal, and the quality of rest is severely impacted. And if you have snoring or apnea -- two common impediments -- it worsens your quality of sleep.
  • Watching TV: That is actually the worst thing in the world to do. Television is visually and auditorally stimulating. You don't want to stimulate your brain if you're trying to go to sleep.
  • Paying bills before bedtime: That's the last thing you should do before you go to bed -- especially not in bed! There's a Pavlovian fact that we associate places with activities. Bed is for sleep and sex and that's it. If you pay bills in bed, every time you get close to bed, you'll start stressing about money.
  • Taking sleeping pills: I am not an advocate of sleep aids other than on a short-term basis. There are things people can do that are healthier, safer and work better. Taking over-the-counter remedies like valerian or melatonin can work temporarily but they don't address the root cause or address changes in behavior that lead to solving the problem. A lot of people also take Benadryl to try to get some Zs. It is sedating, but the affects are so long-lasting that when you wake up next morning, you're still impaired.
Alleviating Insomnia
If you have difficulty for a couple weeks, don't freak out. For example, if you lose your job and can't sleep for two weeks, that's normal, that's reactive. But if you haven't slept well for four months, you need to do something about it. Identify your problem, try to manage it and if that doesn't work, talk to your doctor or a sleep professional.

In general, adults need about eight hours of sleep, but the way you know if you're getting enough is if you go to sleep when you're tired and wake up feeling refreshed.

Stress is a big contributor to insomnia because it's hard for people to turn off their brains. If you're fretting about your job or the economy, that keeps you up at night. If you're up at night, it exacerbates all of those things — if you're cranky and not rational, you don't have coping skills to overcome the obstacles you're facing. But there are things you can do to increase likelihood of getting sleep. 

What is Sleep Hygiene?
If your problem is insomnia, sleep hygiene is your first place to go. Sleep hygiene is a series of behaviors and patterns that promote good, healthy, restorative rest:

Bodies love patterns and repetition, so go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Think about what you do for your kids -- They have a bedtime and wake up at same time every morning.

Bedtime rituals:
We give our kids different bedtime rituals. For adults, if you get into a pattern of something relaxing, it can have that same pro-sleep affect. Try drinking chamomile tea, doing some light reading or gentle stretching, or something relaxing and pleasurable, like taking a warm bath. Getting into a habit of doing something like this every night before bed tends to be helpful. If you go to bed and can't fall asleep in 15 to 20 minutes, get out of bed, go somewhere else and do something relaxing. You don't want to associate the bed with stressful thoughts. You should be happy in bed.

You should only associate your bed for sleep and sex. You should not have a TV in your bedroom, and don't be online reading about world crises or do anything stressful right before you close your eyes. You need to disconnect from the stressful world we live in to this blissful world of sleep. Sleep will be much more effective if you allow yourself time to ease into it — have a transition period that really helps.

Your bedroom should be dark, cool and quiet. All you need is a comfortable mattress. If you're comfortable, you're on the right mattress.  

Other tips:
  • No caffeine after 12 noon, including coffee, soda, chocolate, and certain medications. Be aware, many over-the-counter medications contain caffeine, such as pain relievers, menstrual relief medication, diet pills, allergy medication, cold medication, vitamins, minerals and herbal products.
  • Don't exercise right before bed. You should plan ahead and exercise earlier in the day.
  • Don't nap during the day if you're having difficulties sleeping at night.
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