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I love sleep – naps, night time, sleeping in…So when our son came along, I was in for a rude awakening – literally!  Every two hours snatched out of a dreamy sleep by a screaming child is not for the faint of heart.  I’ll admit it, it is one of the selfish reasons for us not wanting another child – I just don’t know if I could go through those sleepless nights again (our son did have colic).  There are other less selfish reasons, but that is our selfish one.

Pre-child, however, sleep did not always come easy for me.  I call it the broken record of my mind.  You know how it is when you just can’t turn off your thoughts and they jump randomly from one inocuous thought to the next.  During my twenties, I implemented every possible insomnia cure – no t.v. in the bedroom, no caffeine past 3 p.m., meditation, winding down an hour before bed-time, etc.  And, with diligence (and a great meditation retreat), I was able to quiet that broken record.

With a good night’s rest increasingly losing out to the Internet, e-mail, late-night cable and other distractions of modern life, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that too little or interrupted sleep may be taking an unappreciated toll on America’s health.

“We’re shifting to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week society, and as a result we’re increasingly not sleeping like we used to,” reports Najib T. Ayas, a sleep specialist, from the University of British Columbia. While many aspects of sleep remain a mystery, the emerging picture is that not sleeping enough runs counter to the body’s internal clock, throwing a host of basic bodily functions out of sync.

A lack of sleep, (or interrupted sleep) means the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation, and the release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. Sleep helps us thrive by contributing to a healthy immune system, as well as better concentration, better decision making and allowing us to fully engage in professional and social activities.

In addition, early reports suggest that the nation’s obesity epidemic is being driven, in part, by a corresponding decrease in the average number of hours American’s are sleeping. According to the Sleep Foundation, Sleep helps regulate the levels of the hormones gherlin and leptin, which play a role in our feelings of hunger and fullness. So when we are sleep deprived, we may feel the need to eat more, which can lead to weight gain.

The National Sleep Foundation goes on to report that approximately 70 million people in the United States are affected by sleep deprivation and about 40 million American’s suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are estimated to cost Americans over $100 billion annually in lost productivity, medical expenses, sick leave, and property and environmental damage.

The amount of necessary sleep varies from person to person, with some breezing through on just a few hours’ slumber and others barely functioning without a full 10 hours, experts say. But most people apparently need between about seven and nine hours, with studies indicating that an increased risk for disease starts to kick in when people get less than six or seven.

TIPS FOR A BETTER NIGHT’S SLEEP

1.       Maintain a regular bed and wake schedule even on weekends.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a “circadian clock” in our brain and the body’s need to balance both sleep time and wake. A regular waking time in the mornings strengthens the circadian function and help with sleep onset at night.

2.       Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.  A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep.

3.       Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, and cool.  Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep – cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise”, humidifiers, and fans to help create a conducive sleep environment.

4.       Exercise regularly.   Studies show that exercising regularly makes it easier to fall asleep and contributes to a sounder sleep. However, try to avoid exercise right before going to bed. In addition, to making us alert, exercise raises body temperature, and a cooler body temp is associated with sleep onset.

5.       Avoid eating, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bed time.  Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants making going to sleep difficult. Caffeine in particular can remain in the body for awhile and should be avoided 6-8 hours before bedtime. People think of alcohol and food as sedatives, but both can actually disrupt sleep causing nighttime awakenings. Consuming alcohol or eating a heavy meal can lead to a night of less restful sleep.

6.       Use the bedroom only for sleep.  It is best to take work material, computer, and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep and intimate moments to strengthen the association between bed and sleep.

If you still have sleep problems use a sleep diary and talk to your doctor. Note the type of sleep problems is affecting your sleep or if you are sleepy when you wish to be awake and alert. Use the sleep diary to discuss with your doctor.

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