We’ve all been there, tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable and lull our body into peaceful slumber. But sometimes it’s not as easy as we would like. A good night’s sleep can be interrupted by outside influences (noise, your snoring partner) as well as internal ones (your mind is racing, you’re just not comfortable). The good news is there are many things you can do to turn your fitful nights into restful hours of sleep. “People must first recognize what their sleep needs are,” says David Pitts, MD, a sleep medicine physician at Fusion Sleep. “Everyone is unique in this way. Some people can get by on six to eight hours while others need eight to 10 hours to thrive. The more challenging part is to implement a plan on how to achieve consistent restful sleep.”
Make sleep a priority
Whether you’re working, taking care of your family or both, it can be difficult to carve out more time for sleep. “Sleep is critical for restoration and rejuvenation of all of our physiologic processes, from our cognitive function, to our cardiovascular system, to our mood, metabolism, and everything else in between,” says Scott M. Leibowitz, MD, the co-medical director at the Sleep Disorders Center of Piedmont Hospital. “Most people need between seven and a half to eight and a half hours of sleep per night to function optimally, so it is important to recognize your individual sleep needs and strive to obtain them each night. That said, no one person has the same needs, so it is important to have expectations that are aligned with your needs.”
Try keeping a log of how many hours of sleep you get per night and how you feel in the morning. This can be your best indicator for determining how many hours of sleep you need and the best way to find that optimal number. Take note of how long you’re asleep, any obstacles that prevent you from sleeping and how often you wake up. Once you have all the facts, you can pinpoint the problems. The next step is creating your own sleep sanctuary.
Your mattress matters
If you find yourself waking up with aches and pains, it may be time to get a new mattress. Your sleep surface can play a vital role in providing both back and neck support and helping you to relax. “Mattresses should be replaced every five to 10 years, depending on the make and model of the mattress,” Leibowitz says. “An old mattress can cause musculoskeletal pain and sleep disruption.”
With so many different types out there, it may be difficult to decide which one is right for you, so make sure you have in mind a “wish list” for your ideal mattress.
“The three major components of contemporary mattresses are body and back support (determined by the internal components of the mattress), the ability of the mattress to conform to the body (memory foam technology is often involved and uses your body heat to allow this outer layer to conform to your body) and heat dissipation (allowing excess body heat to be removed usually through mattress ventilation),” Dr. Pitts explains. Whether you are in the market for memory foam or a coil mattress, the surface should support the normal “S” curve of the back for proper spine alignment. Make sure you go in person and test out a few different mattress types. Also, if you are leaning toward a spring-coil mattress, ask about the coil count (a standard twin-size mattress should have at least 300 coils, a queen, 375 coils and a king, 450 coils).
After the foundation of a good mattress, make sure you get the pillows to match. Like your mattress, the right pillow should offer support and comfort. Never keep pillows past their prime, as they can collect mildew or fungus. As a general rule, replace your pillow every 12 to 18 months.
The position in which you sleep can be a good indicator for your pillow purchase.
• For stomach sleepers, the thinner the better, as you want to place minimal stress on your neck muscles.
• For side sleepers, try a pillow that supports the contours of your neck like memory foam or a body pillow.
• For back sleepers, you want cushion like a down pillow, but not so much that your head is pushed up too far.
In the dark
No matter how hard of a sleeper you are, light can still have an effect on your level of rest. Both natural and man-made lights can disturb your sleep cycle, so it’s important to make sure you create an atmosphere that blocks out light by using dark curtains and removing or covering the light from cell phones, the TV and other electrical devices.
“Exposing yourself to bright light in the mornings and keeping yourself in dim lighting conditions in the evening is the best way to keep your internal clock in sync with a normal 24 hour day,” says Lisa Johnston, MD, medical director at Northside Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. “Too much bright light exposure in the evening, for example, will delay the time your body will want to go to sleep.”
Medical studies have indicated that blue light regulates the body’s release of the sleep hormone melatonin, and overexposure of blue light can limit the production and even make you more alert.
“The light from these devices (computers, electronic games or cell phones) also delays your internal clock from inducing sleep, thus actually delaying sleepiness,” Dr. Pitts says. “Getting in bed, dimming the lights and doing something mindless (reading a book, listening to music) optimizes your ability to achieve your goal.”
The air up there
According to the National Sleep Foundation, temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will disrupt sleep, but even sleep researchers don’t seem to agree on the ideal temperature for optimal rest. Dr. Leibowitz points out that although it’s more common for people to prefer to sleep in slightly cooler rooms, it can vary due to personal preference.
The bottom line is you should set the thermostat to what is most comfortable for you. If you sleep with a partner who prefers a different temperature, try regulating it with blankets to keep warm (instead of turning up the thermostat) or try an oscillating fan to keep you cooler. Suggested sleep temperature ranges between 65-72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Air quality can also play a factor. Whether or not you suffer from allergies, make sure to sweep under the bed for dust bunnies, use an air purifier if you are more sensitive to dust allergens and keep four-legged friends outside the room during bedtime.
Although you may not be able to control the noise level outside your apartment or house, you can do things within your home to limit the level of racket. We all love our pets, but (speaking to dog-owners overall) sometimes our furry friends want to bark at every sound. As hard as it may be, leaving Fido in the hallway on his own comfy bed may help you sleep through the night. If you have a partner that snores, there are many natural remedies to help this condition, and if all else fails, there are always earplugs. If you crave soothing noises, don’t underestimate the investment in a sound machine which can feature calming sounds of the ocean, rain forest, music or white noise.
Mind, body and soul
Sleep has profound effects on our mood, physical appearance, cognitive alertness and so much more.
Understanding the fundamental importance of sleep should encourage you to seek out the most ideal sleeping environment possible. “First and foremost, sleep is a fundamental need just like eating and breathing,” Dr. Johnston says. “Life cannot be sustained without sleep. Sleep is restorative to both the body and the brain.”
Setting aside time to rest is just as important as creating the ideal atmosphere within your home to promote healthy sleep. The experts agree that getting enough physical and mental stimulation throughout the day can help get your body prepared for the sleep it needs. Some common tips include getting some exercise (try taking a walk around your neighborhood park after work), exercising your brain, getting enough sunlight (try reading that new novel in your backyard) and avoiding caffeine at night. Between preparing your body and your home, you can achieve a good night’s sleep.
Tips from the experts
In our busy lives, sleep often takes a back seat to other important things that demand our time. It often helps to start by deciding what time you need to get up in the morning, and then work backwards. Preparation for sleep should start 30 minutes to an hour before lights out and include stopping any activities related to computer use, electronic games or text messaging. These activities promote racing thoughts and potential problem-solving when your brain should be winding down.
-David Pitts, MD, Fusion Sleep
Sleep aids should be used only when sleep problems are persistent and should not be used as an isolated treatment. Understanding the nature of an individual’s sleep problem is critical in order to effectively treat the problem. Medications generally treat the symptom of not being able to sleep, but not the underlying problem of having lost the skills to initiate sleep in a constructive manner. You should see a sleep specialist when it is a persistent enough problem that is it impacting your quality of life, or you require medications to sleep on a regular basis.
-Scott M. Leibowitz, MD, the Sleep Disorders Center of Piedmont Hospital
Taking a nap
Napping in and of itself is not bad for you. After waking in the morning, however, sleep inertia (tendency towards sleepiness) begins to build up and continues to do so throughout the day. Napping will decrease sleep inertia and may cause sleep onset difficulties at normal bedtime. If naps are restorative for an individual and do not interfere with overnight sleep, there is no harm done.
-Lisa Johnston, MD, Northside Hospital Sleep Disorders Center
At least 40 million Americans each year suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems.
-Courtesy of National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, May 2007
The average person will spend one third of their life sleeping, 25 years over a 75 year life time.
National Sleep Awareness Week, which takes place March 5-11, is an annual public education and awareness campaign to promote the importance of sleep.