“Oh sleep! It is a gentle thing; beloved from pole to pole.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The simple ritual of a good night’s sleep is an unparalleled necessity for good health. Referred to by William Shakespeare as “the chief nourisher in life’s feast,” sleep is a critical function that allows us to restore vital physical functions, fuel and nurture our creativity, enhance feelings of well-being and provide renewed energy resources for the next period of activity.
While we all know that lack of sleep affects the quality of life, few of us realize the full range of problems—physiological, psychiatric, emotional and mental—that can result from chronic sleep problems. Whether it’s too little sleep, too much sleep or an inadequate quality of sleep, disturbed sleep patterns impact how we look, feel and perform on a daily basis, and can have a major impact on our overall quality of life.
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems, significantly impacting their health, safety and alertness. Studies conducted over the past several decades indicate that chronic sleep disorders may also contribute to heart disease, hypertension, stroke, depression, diabetes and other serious illnesses.
Little was known about sleep until renowned sleep pioneer William C. Dement, MD, PhD, established the world’s first sleep disorder clinic in 1970 at Stanford University. Now in his 80s, Dr. Dement is still considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on sleep, sleep deprivation, and the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. He is credited with saving thousands of lives “without seeing a single patient” by researching, identifying and publicizing sleep disorders and the effects it can have on the quality of life.
One of his top initiatives, taught to thousands of Stanford students over the years in his enormously popular Sleep and Dreams course, is to make the public aware that “drowsiness is red alert!” — encouraging each person to become aware of their own fatigue limits to avoid serious consequences. Wake Up America: A National Sleep Alert, a 1992 sleep study also associated with Dement, concluded that accidents and reduced productivity caused by sleep deprivation or sleep disorders could cost the U.S. up to a hundred million dollars per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that “drowsy driving” is responsible for the loss of more than 1,500 lives, and causes at least 100,000 vehicular accidents each year.
What robs us of our sleep? Experts consider stress the No. 1 cause of short-term sleeping problems. Other causes include irregular work schedules, jet lag, physical discomfort from illness, a distracting or uncomfortable environment, and lifestyle choices such as alcohol and/or caffeine consumption that can interfere with the ability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep. More serious problems include sleep apnea, characterized by interrupted breathing; involuntary limb movements such as restless leg syndrome; and narcolepsy, characterized by an abnormal tendency to involuntarily pass directly from wakefulness into deep sleep.
Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Adequate amounts of uninterrupted sleep is recuperative and rejuvenating. People who routinely get less than 7 hours sleep, or 8 or more hours with several interruptions, often show symptoms of sleep deprivation: irritability, attention deficit, and increased stress levels.
Most people experience sleep problems from time to time, but chronic, persistent sleep problems can seriously affect health and wellbeing. If you consistently find yourself feeling tired or not well rested during the day despite spending enough time in bed at night, you may have a sleep disorder and should seek medical advice. A general practitioner or a sleep specialist should be able to help.
For people who have occasional sleep problems, there are some simple methods that can help promote sleep and the ability to stay asleep:
Have a good sleeping environment. Remove any distractions, such as noises or bright lights, and replace an uncomfortable bed or pillow if necessary.
Follow a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day—even on weekends—creates a solid habit.
Avoid late-day caffeine consumption. Stimulants can take hours to wear off, making it hard for some people to fall asleep at night.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Alcohol can interfere with deep, restorative sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep.
Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. A large meal can cause indigestion; drinking fluids can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep or keep waking up, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Late afternoon naps can make it harder to sleep at night.
Relax before bed. Take the time to unwind—create a soothing bedtime ritual, such as a warm bath, reading or listening to music.
Natural remedies. Holistic remedies for sleep problems include breathing techniques, visualizations, mantras and herbal preparations. Monroe Products offers a full line of audio CDs, using the extraordinary Hemi-Sync® technology, that can help you fall sleep and stay asleep, as well as catch a fully-restorative nap in 30 minutes.