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Feature Article: Sleep

What You Need to Know: Better Sleep Equals Better Health

If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, you’re not alone. More than one-quarter of the U.S. population experience sleep problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an estimated 40 million people suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

There are many possible reasons for problem sleep. Some people have a diagnosable sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. Certain medical conditions or the medications used to treat them may also interfere with sleep. Fortunately, in those cases, there is treatment available so they can enjoy better sleep. When poor sleep is the result of stress or bad bedtime habits, however, lifestyle changes can lead to better sleep.

Sounds simple enough, but changing ways is a lot easier said than done. Despite repeated warnings about the importance of sleep, many fail to take it seriously. “I can’t tell you how many times people tell me, ‘Oh, you can sleep when you’re dead,’” relates one woman interviewed in the video Honor Thy Sleep.

That attitude is exactly the problem, according to Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine who is featured in the video. “In our society, the value of sleep is really downplayed,” he says. “In fact, inadequate sleep is correlated with a lot of health problems and lower quality of life.”

Now is the time for people to wake up to the importance of healthy sleep, Dr. Morgenthaler advises. Read these tips for better sleep, nights, better days and better health.

How much sleep do we need?

People interviewed for Honor Thy Sleep said they typically slept between 5 and 8 hours a night, with some getting as few as 2 hours.

Although they might think they’re OK getting by on that little sleep, experts such as Dr. Morgenthaler strongly disagree. “To feel well-rested and to avoid adverse health consequences, the average adult needs between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night,” he explains. “As we age, our sleep requirement stays about the same, but because our sleep is less efficient, we may actually have to spend more time in bed to get that same amount of sleep.”

Teens, meanwhile, need about 9 hours of sleep, while school-age children require 10 to 11 hours.

How much are we getting?

Simply put, not enough. Thirty-seven percent of people already get less than 7 hours of sleep a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control; and the percentage of people sleeping 6 hours or less a night is on the rise, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

Making matters worse, most people are probably getting even less than they think. “Studies show that people tend to underestimate the amount of sleep that they get by 45 minutes to an hour,” Dr. Morgenthaler says.

Why does sleep matter, anyway?

Everyone has a bad night of sleep once in a while, and most people can catch up over the next few nights. But too many nights of too little sleep can take a serious toll. “When we get a lot of days or months in a row of slightly lower amounts of sleep, we may not feel all that sleep-deprived,” Dr. Morgenthaler says, “but studies show that we’re performing at about the same level as we might be if we were legally drunk.”

Even cutting back on sleep slightly can have an impact. Research shows people who get less sleep don’t perform as well on mental tasks as people who get closer to 7 hours of sleep a night. “When I get 8, it’s like a whole other world,” says one man interviewed in the video.

Also, lack of sleep may weaken the immune system and make people more susceptible to viruses, like the common cold. Most significant, research now shows that lack of sleep may also put people at higher risk for more serious conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure. “Sleep should really be thought of as part of a three-legged table of health,” Dr. Morgenthaler says. “One [leg] is good exercise, one is good diet and the other is good sleep, and they’re all equally important.”

So, what’s the secret to getting more sleep?

It’s really a matter of heeding sleep advice, including making some minor changes to bedtime routines, according to Dr. Morgenthaler. Follow these tips for better sleep:

1. Follow a regular sleep schedule.

“The body doesn’t like shifting what time it goes to bed,” Dr. Morgenthaler explains. “Our body and our biological clock like obeying a fairly regular schedule.”

2. Turn off your screens.

“You really need to have a device-free zone around bedtime,” Dr. Morgenthaler says. “Those emails will still be there for you tomorrow, and the most important thing that you need to do is sleep.” In addition, the artificial light of screens on laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, television, etc., can actually confuse the brain into thinking it’s earlier than it is. The brain then delays its normal release of melatonin, a hormone that causes sleepiness.

3. Manage nighttime stress.

Stress is a leading cause of sleeplessness, and worrying about not getting enough sleep can actually keep people awake, according to Dr. Morgenthaler. He recommends making stress management a regular part of the bedtime routine. “It’s a good idea to get a journal and schedule a time, maybe an hour before bedtime, that you’ll sit down and you start [writing] down all the thoughts that are coming to your mind,” he explains. “Once you get in to bed and some of these come back, you can say, ‘I’ve already dealt with that and I have a plan for it that starts tomorrow. Now is time to sleep.’”

4. Get moving.

Here’s one more reason to get serious about exercise: A survey by the National Sleep Foundation found people who exercise reported getting a good night’s sleep more often than non-exercisers. Even when they slept the same amount, exercisers reported better sleep.

5. Eat right.

Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy or spicy foods within 4 to 6 hours of bed. While a nightcap can help people fall asleep, it also prevents people from falling into deeper, more restorative sleep. People who drink alcohol before bed often wake not feeling rested.

6. Determine to make sleep a health priority.

“The one message I would have about sleep is honor thy sleep,” Dr. Morgenthaler concludes. “You need to know it’s important, and you need to get enough of it.” If you’re finding that you’re getting enough sleep, but you still don’t feel well-rested, you may have a sleep disease. Help is available for people with sleep diseases. Talk to your healthcare provider about sleep problems and options for better sleep.

7. Talk to a healthcare provider.

If sleep problems persist or are having a big impact on your quality of life, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider who can discuss better sleep habits. You may have a treatable sleep disorder. A healthcare provider also can help find out if another health issue is leading to sleep problems that are keeping you from getting more sleep.

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