Sweet dreams: Are you getting enough sleep?
Almost everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time. But many Americans may be chronically undersleeping—with potentially hazardous consequences for their health and safety. Simple self-help practices, known as "sleep hygiene," can lead to better rest. For chronic sleep problems, a doctor's visit may be in order.
Thirty-five percent of adults get, on average, less than seven hours of sleep every 24 hours, according to data published recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though sleep needs vary, most adults need seven to eight hours nightly.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says older adults need between seven and nine hours each night. Not getting enough rest at night can result in problems during the day. In one study, one-third of adults reported at least one problem caused by feeling sleepy or tired. The most common were trouble concentrating and trouble remembering.
Risks of cutting back
A lot of people cut back on sleep to have more time for other things. But sleep is as vital to well-being as good nutrition and regular exercise. People who say they can get by on five or six hours of sleep a night—night after night—probably aren't doing their best work or living healthy lives.
In the short term, their sleepiness might endanger them or those around them, such as children they care for or coworkers if they operate equipment. Drowsy driving alone accounts for about 100,000 motor vehicle crashes annually, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Insufficient sleep strains relationships, too, by making it harder to deal with life's minor irritations.
Chronic lack of sleep has cumulative health effects, too. It has been linked to possible increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, infection, and depression. It might even shorten your life. Researchers find people who regularly sleep under six hours a night don't live as long as those getting closer to eight hours of solid rest most nights.
About 60 million Americans have sleep disorders that can keep them from getting enough rest. Most suffer insomnia—repeated trouble falling or staying asleep. (The NIA reports insomnia is the most common sleep problem for persons 60 and over.) Other people's sleep is disrupted by sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome (RLS).
Sleep apnea is characterized by brief interruptions in breathing while asleep. It's usually caused when soft tissue in the throat relaxes and blocks the airway. This can rouse a sleeper many times each night, though the person may not remember waking up. Sleep apnea is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Lifestyle changes (sleeping on your side, avoiding alcohol near bedtime, not smoking) are enough to help some. Doctors can recommend devices that help keep airways open during sleep.
RLS causes unpleasant feelings in the legs and an uncontrollable urge to move, which can make it hard to fall or stay asleep. Moderate exercise, massage, and other self-help measures help some people. Others need nutritional supplements or medications.
To determine if you're sleeping well, the National Sleep Foundation recommends asking yourself these questions:
- Does it take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night?
- Do you wake up often at night or early in the morning and have trouble going back to sleep?
- Do you feel groggy or lethargic, instead of refreshed, when you wake up?
- Do you feel drowsy during the day, especially in monotonous situations?
If sleep-related issues concern you, try establishing good "sleep hygiene" by practicing the tips listed below. If you're still yawning, contact your doctor. You could have a sleep disorder, or you may be taking medications that interfere with sleep. If your primary care physician can't help, ask for a referral to a sleep specialist.
These suggestions from the National Sleep Foundation can help you drift off:
- Stick to a schedule. Going to bed, getting up, eating, taking medications, and exercising at the same time every day helps the body's inner clock run smoothly.
- Avoid stimulants. Caffeinated beverages, diet drugs, and some pain relievers can disrupt sleep. Nicotine interferes with deep sleep, and nicotine withdrawal can cause early-morning awakenings.
- Limit alcohol. It can cause sleepiness, but it also hampers deep, restorative sleep.
- Get physical. Daily exercise promotes sound sleep, as long as it's not too close to bedtime. Finish exercising at least three hours before turning in.
- Avoid overindulgence. Late-night meals, high-fat foods, and huge portions keep the digestive system awake and can prevent a good night's sleep.
- Manage stress. Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or muscle relaxation. If depression or anxiety is part of the equation, see a mental health professional.
- Unwind before bedtime. Try reading a book, knitting, taking a warm bath—doing anything you find relaxing—for about an hour before sleep.
- Keep cool. A cool, dark, quiet room promotes sleep. If you're too hot or too cold, you'll toss and turn.
What about sleeping pills?
Over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills may help with short-term sleep problems. Some pills are designed to help people fall asleep, while others are for people who have trouble staying asleep. However, it's important to be aware that sleeping pills aren't safe for everyone. Before you try a sleep aid, be sure to talk with your doctor or pharmacist about whether it's right for you.