We spend a third of our lives asleep — and with good reason. Sleep is essential for healing, boosts white blood cell counts, improves memory function, and, of course, helps the body build up energy.
But as to the question of why we sleep — and all animals sleep, in apparent defiance of evolutionary logic — science offers no definitive answer. The prevailing theories all have holes. If sleep’s primary function is restorative, why do bears wake from hibernation and immediately need more sleep? If sleep is essential to developing brain function, why do teenagers require almost as much as newborns? And what, if anything, is the purpose of dreams?
Whatever the reason, sleep is as essential to our well-being as food, water, and air. Good “sleep hygiene,” as the experts call it, is no different than good nutrition. But — just as many people frequent fast-food restaurants — we often don’t properly heed our basic need to sleep.
“People tend to really destroy their sleep hygiene with bad habits,” says Lisa McKevitt, a registered polysomnographic technologist and clinical manager at the Sleep Center at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie.
Here are some suggestions for improving your sleep hygiene:
Make time for sleep
We all lead busy lives, and an easy way to add hours to the day is to postpone sleep. Over time, however, burning the candle at both ends has the same figurative effect on the body that it has on the candle. Budget time for sleep, just like you budget time to eat. “Maintain a specific bedtime that’s reasonable, not 2 a.m.,” McKevitt says. “Whatever your schedule is like, give your body the opportunity to sleep seven to nine hours.”
Use the bedroom exclusively for sleeping
The primary purpose of the bedroom is not to eat, read, watch TV, listen to music, or update your Facebook status. Your bedroom is for sleeping, and should be “quiet, dark, and used for sleep,” McKevitt says. Similarly, the bed itself is designed for one purpose (okay, maybe two). If you’re having trouble sleeping, don’t eat, talk on the phone, read, or do any other activity in bed.
Let there be no light (or as little as possible)
An obvious point, but an essential one: Keep it dark. “Light triggers your brain to be awake,” McKevitt says — and any kind of light, no matter how dim, can have this effect: “The LED light from the alarm clock, the cable box, the computer screen.” Sleeping with the television on is not advised. While late-night programming may lull you to sleep, your closed eyes will still register the flashing lights, affecting the quality and duration of slumber.
Go easy on those caffeinated beverages
Caffeine is a methylxanthine — a type of stimulant. A cup of coffee wakes you up in the morning, sure, but it can keep you up at night, too. “Caffeine has a very long half-life,” McKevitt says. “It takes a long time to process.” Stick to decaf after dinner.
Familiarize yourself with the caffeine contents of various beverages. Many soft drinks have caffeine, including root beer and Mountain Dew. Diet Coke has more than Diet Dr. Pepper, but not nearly as much as Diet Pepsi Max or Red Bull (which, if you’re having problems sleeping, you shouldn’t drink at all). Espresso has less caffeine than regular coffee. Tea can have almost as much as coffee. And so on. Avoid all these drinks after the late afternoon.
Don’t use alcohol as a sleep aid
Alcohol can make you tired, as anyone who’s ever consumed two beers on a lazy summer afternoon well knows. But drinking — and especially drinking to excess — has an overall negative impact on your sleep. “It puts you to sleep,” McKevitt admits. “But as the body metabolizes the alcohol, it has stimulant effects. You’ll sleep well for a few hours, and then wake up.”
If your baby is keeping you up, take heart — this too shall pass
As every parent knows, nothing interrupts a good night’s (or good year’s) sleep like a newborn. Babies operate on a completely different sleep schedule than the rest of us, flowing in and out of deep sleep at seemingly random intervals. While this is unavoidable, especially for breastfeeding mothers, there are some ways you can recoup your lost Zzzs. “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” even if that means taking naps during the morning or afternoon, advises Mavis Gewant, a postpartum doula and childbirth educator. “If you try to stay up all day, you’ll never get any rest.” Co-sleeping, or at least having the baby as close to the bed as possible, can also help.
There are ways to train an infant to sleep through the night. The cry-it-out method, while emotionally grueling, can work, provided the child is ready. But a baby has to be four months old to attempt training, Gewant says; most will not be ready until eight months or so — about the time they start to crawl.
“The good news is that it doesn’t last that long,” she says. “After the first year, babies get more active and tire themselves out more.”
Free your mind
There are times to contemplate Pakistan’s growing nuclear stockpile, the swine flu pandemic, the stack of credit cards you’ve maxed out, the cop who gave you a ticket even though you weren’t speeding, and the fact that there have been so many UFO sightings in the Shawangunks. Lying in bed at night is not one of those times. Clear your mind of unpleasant thoughts — even if it means resorting to that time-honored trick, counting sheep.
If you still have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, get checked out.
More than 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, the cessation of breathing during sleep. According to Night and Day Sleep Services, which runs sleep centers at Phelps Memorial Hospital and Putnam Hospital Center, symptoms include a chronic difficulty falling or staying asleep; snoring; waking up feeling tired; or having sleep disrupted by a sore throat, the need to urinate frequently, or gasping for breath. “Many people don’t realize they have it,” according to McKevitt. “They just attribute it to aging. Excessive daytime sleepiness is a key symptom.”
Sleep apnea can cause a host of medical problems, greatly increasing your chance of heart attack or death. “Because of the constant disruption, your body doesn’t rest the cardiovascular system at night,” McKevitt explains. “Instead, your heart rate and blood pressure are sustained, which continues to stress your heart.” Fortunately, sleep apnea is often treatable with a device that provides continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. This doesn’t help the breathing per se, but “is used as a pneumatic splint, to open the airway and allow you to breathe normally,” she says. Other treatment alternatives include dental devices and surgery.
If you think you might have sleep apnea, “bring your symptoms to the attention of your physician,” says McKevitt. “If your doctor thinks you require a sleep study, our sleep physicians review your medical record; if they agree, you’re scheduled to have one. Most insurances cover the cost.”