I often find that there are just too many things to do everyday: work, exercise, eating healthily, hobbies, friends, reading, socializing.  Too many times in the past, when there just weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, it was sleep time that was usually the first casualty.  After all, or so I thought, it was easy enough to function on a few hours less than the recommended eight hours daily.  So maybe I was a little tired, a little grumpier, perhaps a little slower to make decisions.  How bad could it be?

Did you know that not sleeping affects the judgment, reflexes, agility, and other motor functions?  In fact, people driving after not sleeping for an average of 18 hours tested worse than those with a blood alcohol content of 0.05%, almost the legal limit for intoxication in the United States.

Sleep Deprivation Impairment

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published a study that reflects one of the biggest problems in American health: sleep deprivation

CDC Sleep Deprivation Study

Getting enough sleep is one of the most basic keys to good health. Over one third of Americans don’t get at least seven hours of sleep daily and at least a quarter of those surveyed experienced problems throughout the day because of sleep deprivation.  Some of these problems are decreased alertness, irritability, change in eating habits (usually overeating), and stress within relationships.  Some other longer-term problems include increased dangers of high blood pressure and heart related maladies, psychiatric and mental disorders, and weight gain Health Risks

Even more dangerous in the short term is that sleeplessness can actually encourage risky behavior according to a Duke University study reported by Business Week. The study indicates that gamblers who stay up all night are not only fighting the odds that are stacked in favor of the house, but that their own lack of sleep is furthering their own decision-making process.  In other words, not only do the sleep deprived perform as badly as intoxicated drivers, but their condition could make them more inclined to get behind the wheel!

Establishing healthy sleep patterns is a challenge in today’s fast-paced world, all the more so for shift workers because their work hours interfere with the body’s natural or circadian rhythms.  Here are a few techniques that might help improve the quantity and quality of your sleep:

1. Establish a sleep routine that is followed regularly each time before going to bed.

2. Avoid television with 45 minutes to an hour before going to bed.

3. Avoid caffeine within four to six hours of bedtime.

4. Establish a regular bedtime and try to maintain it.

5. Avoid heavy, spicy, and sugary foods within an hour or two of bedtime

6. Ensure that the sleeping environment is dark and slightly on the cool side if possible.

7. “White noise” such as a fan or static can help drown out more intrusive noises.

8. Alcohol and other sedatives interrupt the dream cycle and will not help with restorative sleep.

9. Limit the bed’s use to sleep and sex.

10. Exercise is helpful for health and sleep but not within a couple of hours of bedtime.

Establishing good sleep habits and experimenting with some simple environmental changes can make it easier to experience the deep, restorative sleep we need for proper health.

By Jackie Ostrikis  MS, CPT