If you woke up this morning feeling less than well rested, you’re not alone. No one is sure exactly how many of us spend our nights tossing and turning, but scientists estimate that somewhere between 10 percent to 34 percent of Americans suffer from insomnia. Our national lack of sleep amounts to big business for pharmaceutical companies, which spent more than $329 million in 2005 advertising prescription sleep aids. And those efforts have a big payoff — Americans spend approximately $2 billion each year on sleeping drugs, and $20 billion on other sleep-related products.
More than 60 percent of people in a 2005 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation admitted to driving while sleepy. But fatigue is not only dangerous in the short term — it also can have lasting impacts on our health. Studies show that sleep deprivation can contribute to everything from hypertension to depression to obesity.
If you share your bed with someone, chances are your inability to snooze disrupts your partner’s rest as well: In a recent Harris poll, 25 percent of people said that their partner’s sleeping habits kept them awake, costing them three or more hours of sleep each week. (Rest easy — most still said that they slept better with their partner than without.)
Given the statistics, it may be tempting to seek relief in a bottle of sleeping pills, but most of us can go a long way toward getting the rest we need by making a few basic lifestyle changes. Even for those with more serious sleep disorders, there’s a simple behavior modification plan to help you get reacquainted with your pillow.
Benefits of Sleep
While everyone’s sleep needs vary, a recent study conducted at the University of Chicago showed that, on average, most people spend about seven and a half hours sleeping or trying to sleep. Plus, those who sleep six to seven hours a night actually live longer than people who sleep less than four hours or more than eight hours, according to a study conducted by the American Cancer Society and the University of California, San Diego.
Although it may seem as though we’re just “lying there” when we’re sleeping, our bodies are anything but passive, says Roger Cole, a sleep researcher and well-known yoga instructor who holds a doctorate in health psychology and specializes in behavioral methods to improve sleep.
The brain and body are busy performing a number of restorative processes while we slumber away. For instance, sleeping is an important part of retaining memories and learning skills.
“Your nerve cells connect by sending signals to each other, and these connections are strengthened when we sleep,” Cole says. Numerous studies on athletes have proven that sleep is an important factor in gaining the “competitive edge,” because skill learning and integration happen during sleep.
Lack of sleep also may be a factor in the country’s expanding obesity epidemic. Several recent studies found that some of the hormonal changes that occur while we sleep affect our appetite. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute found that people who slept five hours a night had higher levels of ghrelin (a hormone that causes hunger) than people who slept eight hours each night. Another recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a correlation between a higher body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) and lack of sleep.
Sleep also plays an important role in building immunity. Research shows that while we’re slumbering, the body’s immune system is strengthened in ways that don’t occur when we’re awake. Consequently, scientists think that improving sleep may be an important factor in enhancing the success of vaccinations and treating certain diseases.
Mechanics of Sleep
If you’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re most likely building up “sleep debt,” Cole says. The longer the situation persists, the greater the debt, and the only way to pay off the loan is to sleep for longer periods of time. It can take several sleep periods over days or even weeks to catch up on a significant sleep deficit.
If you’re not having trouble sleeping, you can enjoy a daytime nap, but those with sleep difficulties should avoid them, Cole says. Sleeping during the day cuts back on the amount of time you’re likely to sleep at night.
Sleep occurs in several stages that repeat cyclically throughout the night. The first stage is fairly light and occurs as we drift off to sleep. Stages one and two last about 30 minutes combined. During stages three and four, known as slow-wave sleep, our brain waves slow down the most. Finally, we enter into the deep REM (rapid eye movement) type of sleep when we do most of our intense dreaming.
Each complete cycle takes about 90 minutes, so if you’re the kind of person who likes to nap, sleeping 20 minutes or less, or napping for about 90 minutes, allows you to avoid waking up during stages three and four, which would otherwise make you feel groggy.
Light and time of day also have an effect on the body’s ability to rest. Levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our sleep patterns, shoot upward at a specific time each evening, typically about two hours before we regularly go to bed. Levels continue to rise as we slumber, peaking in the early morning hours. Melatonin levels drop off sharply as our body temperature dips to its lowest at about 5 a.m., and we begin to stir toward wakefulness. Studies have shown that exposure to bright light can disrupt this timing and interrupt sleep cycles.
Techniques for Sleeping Well
By understanding the various stages and processes the body undergoes during sleep, we’ll begin to see ways to alter our behavior and promote better sleep. Most importantly, we can work with these natural cycles by following a few simple suggestions. For instance, try to keep a regular bedtime and get up around the same time each morning, including weekends. Also keep lights low in the evening (as safety permits), and sleep in a dark room. When you awaken, head for bright light — draw open the shades and curtains, or go into a brightly lit room until you feel alert.
To promote sleepiness before bed, take a warm bath, or try running your hands and feet under warm water. Gentle stretching or yoga exercises also can help promote relaxation.
Use your bedroom only for sleep and intimate activities — keep the television in another room. You’ll also want to avoid stimulants of any kind if you suffer from sleep troubles, Cole warns. Skip the late afternoon colas and coffee, and cut down on alcohol, too.
“Alcohol may make you feel sleepy at first,” he says, “but the byproducts it gives off as it breaks down in the body will wake you up later.”
Reset Your Clock
Good sleep habits often are enough to help people with minor sleep disturbances get back on track, but for those who suffer from chronic sleep complaints, the very act of trying to sleep can be fraught with anxiety. Some people suffer from physical conditions such as sleep apnea, snoring or restless leg syndrome that may require professional help from a sleep clinic (ask your doctor for a referral).
Cole says a person’s original failure to sleep may have been due to a temporary problem, but once this issue passes, the memory of sleeplessness may remain and become associated with lying in bed. If you have frequent trouble sleeping, he recommends following the regimen below to help reset your body’s biological clock and break any conditioned reflexes you might have developed between your bed and sleep-related stress:
- Begin with a very strict schedule of six hours of sleep each night, starting at midnight and ending at 6 a.m. Don’t take any naps while you’re following this program.
- If you can’t fall asleep, or any time you awaken and stay awake longer than 15 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a quiet activity, such as reading or listening to mellow music.
- When you feel you’re ready to go back to sleep, get back into bed. If you’re not asleep within 15 minutes, get out of bed, and start the whole process over again.
- It should only take a day or two before you’re tired enough to fall asleep quickly. Your goal is to sleep a full six hours at a time. When you’re able to make it through the full six hours with minimal disturbance for a few nights in a row, add 15 minutes to your sleep allotment. Stick to the rules, getting out of bed anytime you lie awake for 15 minutes. Keep adding to your total duration until you reach a nightly amount that leaves you feeling rested.
A program like this takes a lot of discipline, but you’ll rest much easier knowing that you drifted off to sleep naturally.