Your Best Sleep Yet is a Sheep Away

By Maha Alattar, MD

We spend a third of our lives asleep. Think about it: if you live to be 90, you would have spent nearly 30 years sleeping! There’s nothing worse than a less than optimal night’s rest. And since sleep is important for body restoration and optimal function when we’re awake, here’s how to get your best sleep yet!

Sleep is made up of 4 different stages: stage 1, stage 2, deep sleep and REM sleep. During REM sleep, the brain enters an intensely active state of being where dreams are made. Here, you are trying to make sense of the world by processing deep emotions, images and concepts. Along with deep sleep, REM sleep is also important in consolidating long-term memory. When you learn something new, let’s say a Spanish word, your brain needs to invite this new information to your brain circuitry so you can recall it later. Sleep allows this new data to be part of your internal world. Sleep is also needed for optimal attention, creativity and thinking. We can all relate to how we feel when we don’t get a good night sleep; we are sluggish and slow. We are less creative and we don’t remember what we learned yesterday. Your exam scores might be higher if you get a good night sleep.

Sleep is also about restoration and repair. So what exactly are we restoring? Growth hormone is preferentially secreted during deep sleep. It allows our body to repair damaged cells and tissue. The immune system requires optimal sleep to work well. Interleukins and tumor necrosis factors are proteins that defend us against viruses and bacteria, but they also go after cancer cells. These proteins are released when we are asleep. Their levels drop shortly after we wake up. If you catch a cold, sleep is your best medicine.

A good night sleep does not come easily to some people. Poor sleep quality can affect the health of your brain and body. The most common cause of sleep deprivation is not sleeping enough hours. So make sleep a priority and get adequate sleep, which means 7 to 8 hours for an adult each night. If you suffer from insomnia, look for the reasons before reaching for sleeping pills. Insomnia could be from stress, pain, hormonal changes, anxiety or depression, too much caffeine or poor pre-bedtime habits like running household chores at midnight. It could also be caused by some other sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder where you experience one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. It is treatable. Signs of sleep apnea are snoring, gasping for air, disrupted sleep, daytime fatigue and even hypertension or heart disease. Treatment can improve your sleep quality and ward off the risk of heart disease, hypertension, depression and accidents (due to sleepiness).

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is an urge to move the legs in the evenings and prior to bedtime. It is described as a creepy, crawling sensation that is relieved with movements. It can affect sleep quality too.

Today, sleep disorders can be treated successfully. Sleep apnea can be treated with a devise known as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which involves the use of the mask and tubing. It takes time to get used to it but it can be of tremendous benefit. Other treatment options are an oral appliance, positional therapy and weight control. Restless legs can be treated with medications, however lifestyle changes can ameliorate the symptoms. It helps to minimize caffeine, avoid alcohol and make sure you are not on medications that can worsen restless legs (such as Benadryl or certain antidepressants).

Insomnia can be treated with a healthy lifestyle and good pre-bedtime habits that help you to relax and reduce stress. Daytime exercise is a great way to ward off stress as well as eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Have a passion and seek a mindful way of living. Count your blessings, not misgivings. Emotional stress takes a toll on sleep, so it is important to learn to cope with life’s ongoing stressors and responsibilities. At night, keep a routine and wake up time, take a warm shower in the evening and avoid excess light (from electronics or room light) close to bedtime. Nighttime light sends the wrong signals to the brain. If you have a tendency for racing thoughts at bedtime, engage the right side of your brain by listening to music or taking on drawing and coloring on a sketch book. This is why singing lullabies to babies puts them right to sleep!

When it comes to quality sleep, it almost seems like we can’t get enough! Taking steps to ensuring you make the most of your dream time will help you live a more fulfilling and healthier life. To fall asleep fast ditch the sheep and picture a relaxing scene of your choice like a peaceful shore or mountain setting. Happy dreaming!


7 Tips for Better Sleep

  • Stay active during the day, mentally and physically.
  • Do the opposite at night: wind-down your mind and body.
  • Get outdoor light during the day. Avoid bright light at night.
  • Stay away from stimulants later in the day. Minimize alcohol, especially close to sleep time.
  • Do what you can to minimize stress in your life.
  • Avoid heavy meals within 3 hours of bedtime. A snack is fine. Avoid too much liquid close to bedtime.
  • Have a healthy bedroom environment – pay attention to pets sleeping in bed, a snoring partner, street noise or light, and temperature (you want it to be around 68 degrees).