Sweet Sleep

We have a lot of words for sleep, but so many of them pertain to the sleep you do in the daytime when you don’t get enough at night: forty winks, catnap, siesta, power nap.

Why don’t we sleep well? Perhaps it’s our busy schedules—getting up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work, cooking dinner, lugging our children to this activity or that, finishing work on our own time, maybe doing something relaxing for ourselves (watching TV, catching up with Facebook, visiting with friends) until we pass out from exhaustion.

Some of us have poor sleep habits, or we’re disturbed by stress. We can’t shut off repetitive songs or our endless to-do lists. And each day we short ourselves on sleep, our bodies keep a running tab of our deficits, increasing the stressors that keep us awake. The sleep cycle meets the vicious circle.

But sleep is necessary. And how much you need really doesn’t vary much from person to person. We all have a biological clock called a circadian rhythm. Your brain responds to the changes from daylight to darkness by producing the hormone melatonin, which helps you feel sleepy.

So how much do you need? If you’re a healthy adult, about 7.5 to 9 hours each night. Less can start to affect your performance. For instance, if you got enough sleep, you’d feel alert all day. An afternoon lag can suggest that you need to bump up the zzzzs. Likewise, you should awaken at the same time each day—on your own—without an alarm clock. You wouldn’t need your snooze button, either, nor would you sleep later on the weekends.

The best reason for getting the proper sleep, though, is your health. If it’s inadequate in quantity or quality, you’ll likely suffer from inflammation, irritability, concentration and memory problems, weight gain, and a host of other health and immune system risks.

Dr. A’s Habits of Health has, in addition to a sleep assessment, some good rules of thumb for setting up a healthy sleep environment.

Set a bedtime. Going to bed and waking up at the same time sets your internal clock and allows you to get sleepy on time each night and wake up rested each morning.

Say no to naps. Napping can affect your ability to sleep at night. And if you’re getting enough at night, you won’t need a nap!

Decrease nighttime stimulation. Your pineal gland is light sensitive. Turn off all glowing electric technologies thirty minutes before bed. Don’t disturb sleep with last-minute emails and more things to add to your plate in the morning.

Avoid exercise within two hours of bedtime. Exercise in the day helps us sleep at night, but it’s too stimulating to our bodies close to bedtime.

Avoid alcohol within 90 minutes of bedtime. When the effects wear off, you can become suddenly aroused in the middle of the night.

Resolve disagreements and schedules. Make your lists and settle your arguments before bed so that nothing disagreeable keeps you from sleeping well.

(For more excellent information on sleep, check out Chapter 17 in Dr. A’s Habits of Health.)

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