The Quest for a Good Night’s Sleep

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The Quest for a Good Night’s Sleep

By T. Michele Walker

“To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub…” 

“Hamlet”, by William Shakespeare

Ah, that elusive night’s sleep. A good night’s sleep, or rather, the process of getting to sleep has always been an issue for me along with 50 to 70 million Americans.

It began with my life long aversion to naps. I remember it far too well, three year old me tossing and turning, desperately waiting for my mother to awaken from her nap so I could be freed from my tortuous nap-prison.

That turned into “night owl me,” which was not compatible in the least with a life as a student and functioning member of society. It’s a good thing I ended up in the arts, where “night owl me” thrived.

Several years and several different roles later, as a mother, teacher, artist, writer, and I’m still dealing with my cranky friend, sleep. Currently, I’m stuck somewhere between “night owl me” and “morning dove me” who adores watching the sun rise and running at 6 am.  

Sleep loss and sleep disorders are among the most common yet frequently overlooked and readily treatable health problems. Millions of Americans chronically suffer from a disorder of sleep and wakefulness, hindering daily functions and adversely affecting health and longevity (Institute of Medicine). 

The public health consequences of sleep loss and sleep-related disorders are far from benign. The most visible consequences are errors in judgment contributing to disastrous events such as the space shuttle Challenger (Institute of Medicine).

The crew of Space Shuttle Challenger. From left to right are Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe and astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Mission Commander Dick Scobee, astronaut Ronald McNair, pilot Mike Smith, and astronaut Ellison Onizuka. Image from nasa.gov.

The space shuttle exploded just seconds after its January 1986 launch, killing all seven crew members. According to a 1988 report, certain managers involved in the launch had only slept two hours before arriving to work at 1 a.m. that morning. The Presidential Commission on the accident admitted the danger of this deprivation in its June 1986 report, writing, “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake,” (Huffington Post.)

Less visible consequences of sleep conditions are far more prevalent, and they take a toll on nearly every key indicator of public health. Some of these consequences, such as automobile crashes, occur within hours (or minutes) of the sleep disorder, and thus are relatively easy to link to sleep problems. Others—for example, obesity and hypertension—develop more insidiously over months and years of chronic sleep problems (Institute of Medicine). 

The bottom line is that after decades of research, the case can be confidently made that sleep loss and sleep disorders have profound and widespread effects on human health.

Sleep is crucial to both your health and those around you.
Sleep is crucial to both your health and those around you.

Sleep aids are big money. In 2017, they generated $69.5 billion in revenue worldwide and analysts say the industry is on track to hit $101.9 billion by 2023 (Fast Company).

It is worth noting that many sleep aids on the market are incredibly expensive, and are out of reach for many people who might really need them. The well-off generally sleep more, and if they struggle with insomnia, they can afford to shell out hundreds of dollars on sleep aids. In other words, getting a good night’s sleep has become a luxury, in every sense of the word (Fast Company).

With all of the money we spend on a good night’s sleep, there are some simple steps that we can take to get that much needed night’s sleep. The good news is that these steps are, for the most part, free.

1. Stick to a sleep schedule

Set aside no more than eight hours for sleep. The recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult is at least seven hours. Most people don’t need more than eight hours in bed to achieve this goal.

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Try to limit the difference in your sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends to no more than one hour. Being consistent reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle.

If you don’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing. Read or listen to soothing music. Go back to bed when you’re tired. Repeat as needed. 

But don’t watch television or go on to your computer. You should stay away from all “blue light” screens, computers, televisions and phones, at least an hour before bed (Mayo Clinic).

2. Pay attention to what you eat and drink

Don’t go to bed hungry or stuffed. In particular, avoid heavy or large meals within a couple of hours of bedtime. Your discomfort might keep you up.

Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol deserve caution, too. The stimulating effects of nicotine and caffeine take hours to wear off and can wreak havoc on quality sleep. And even though alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it can disrupt sleep later in the night (West Tennessee Healthcare).

Though alcoholic beverages may make you sleepy, drinking too much before bed can lead to sleep issues later in the night.
Though alcoholic beverages may make you sleepy, drinking too much before bed can lead to sleep issues later in the night.

3. Create a restful environment

Create a room that’s ideal for sleeping. Often, this means cool, dark and quiet. Exposure to light might make it more challenging to fall asleep. Again, avoid prolonged use of light-emitting screens just before bedtime. Consider using room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs.

White noise, such as fans, can create a relaxing sleep-inducing environment for many of the sleep-challenged.

Doing calming activities before bedtime, such as taking an Epsom salt bath or using relaxation techniques, might promote better sleep (Mayo Clinic).

4. Limit daytime naps

Long daytime naps can interfere with nighttime sleep. If you choose to nap, limit yourself to up to 30 minutes and avoid doing so late in the day.

If you work nights, however, you might need to nap late in the day before work to help make up your sleep debt (Mayo Clinic).

5. Include physical activity in your daily routine

Regular physical activity can promote better sleep. Avoid being active too close to bedtime, however.

Spending time outside every day might be helpful, too.

6. Manage worries

Try to resolve your worries or concerns before bedtime. Jot down what’s on your mind and then set it aside for tomorrow.

Stress management might help. Start with the basics, such as getting organized, setting priorities and delegating tasks. Meditation also can ease anxiety (Quality Sleep).

7. Sleep supplements

The drug store aisles are lined with sleep aids along with sleep medicines. However, dependency is an issue along with the quality of sleep when on such medications.  

One supplement that has helped me tremendously has been melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland found just above the middle of your brain. It helps your body know when it’s time to sleep and wake up. I find that 3 mg is just right to help me get a healthy night’s sleep (Web MD).

While some studies warn of some side effects of melatonin such as dizziness, stomach discomfort or a headache, melatonin is generally far safer than over the counter or prescribed sleep aids.  

Every person is different and it’s important to do your own research on every supplement and medicine that you decide to take for better health.

Other helpful supplements to help with sleep:

  • Ashwagandha 150 mg
  • HTP 100mg**
  • Theanine 200 mg
  • Zinc 15 mg
  • Magnesium 50 mg
  • Arginine 1200 mg
  • Lysine 1200 mg

**A warning that you cannot take HTP if you are taking some anti-depressants (the SSRIs). 

Know when to contact your doctor

Nearly everyone has an occasional sleepless night — but if you often have trouble sleeping, contact your doctor. Identifying and treating any underlying causes can help you get the better sleep you deserve.

The takeaway is to take control of your body and your health. Ask questions and do your own research. It’s good to know that by creating a healthy routine and following good sleep hygiene, we can all have access to a good night’s sleep and better health.

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