Insomnia and lack of sleep plague our modern society – over a third of Americans suffer from some form of sleep disturbance, over 10 million use prescription sleep aids, and women are twice as likely as men to suffer from insomnia. Often, prolonged sleep latency (difficulty falling sleep), or inability to sustain restful sleep can be signs of underlying anxiety, stress or depression. The health implications of sleep deprivation are profound, including increased risk of heart disease and hypertension, cognitive impairment, a weakened immune response, and increased risk of weight gain, among others problems. Approximately 60 percent of Americans have admitted to driving while sleep deprived, a significant risk for motor vehicle accidents. According to research, being awake for 18 hrs leads to impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05, and after 24 hrs, of 0.10. A blood alcohol level of 0.08 is commonly considered intoxication.
Over the counter sleep aids like melatonin, prescription drugs like zolpidem (Ambien) and others – while quick fixes – often lead to further masking of underlying sleep problems and some degree of daytime drowsiness. While beneficial for short term needs, many Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems related to stress. What are some alternative, healthy practices to restore restful sleep? Here are a few healthy sleep habits:
- Maintain the same bedtime each day – a routine sleep schedule is key to healthy sleep, even on weekends. Approximately 7-9 hrs of sleep is recommended for adults, and 10 hrs for school age children. Often children who oversleep on holidays run into a cycle of inability to sleep at night, followed by daytime sleepiness.
- Turn off all electronic and other stimuli prior to sleep – a good habit is to turn off the TV, tablets and phones about an hour before sleep. Giving your body a chance to wind down, dimming the lights and transitioning to less mentally stimulating activities before sleep is key – both for adults and children. The light emitted from most mobile devices also interferes with the natural rise in the body’s melatonin levels, making it harder to fall asleep. Place your phone across the room if you are tempted to keep checking it at night.
- Visualization – there are many mindful visualization techniques that have been proven to reduce anxiety levels and relax the mind and body. It can be as simple as visualizing a favorite, relaxing place, such as a beach, for five minutes. Close your eyes and try to use all five senses to mentally place yourself in that location -visualize the ocean water, think of the sounds of the waves, the scent of salt in the air, and the feeling of sand and sun on your skin. For five minutes immerse yourself in that experience, and your body will began to relax while your mind refocuses.
- Writing – journaling, or simply writing down a to-do list on paper for 15 mins and then putting it away, can help off-load thoughts in your mind onto paper before sleep.
- Meditation & Mindfulness – one of the biggest challenges to falling asleep is often when we have too much on our mind – thinking about what we have to do the next day, worries about problems, etc. Meditation and mindfulness is the process of being aware of one’s thoughts, and taking control of these thoughts in a healthy way. Passively allowing our thoughts to take over our mind leads to increased anxiety and stress. But similar to the visualization technique above, you can start with simple mindfulness exercises that redirect your thoughts to being present and aware of your body, breathing and surroundings. Many studies have shown the cognitive benefits of meditation on the brain’s physiology and in reducing anxiety and depression. It has a similar role in helping with insomnia. Not sure how to practice mindful meditation? Try this mobile app, Head Space , which offers 10 minute practical meditation exercises which you can incorporate into everyday life, including relaxation technique prior to sleep.
- Cooling off – some studies have shown the benefit of cooler temperatures for falling asleep. Try reducing your thermostat settings to 65-68 degrees at night.
- Cut the Caffeine – of course, limiting caffeinated beverages prior to sleep is a known element of good sleep hygiene. If you are suffering from insomnia, try to eliminate any late afternoon coffee or soda runs as well.
For those who have other contributing medical factors affecting sleep, such as restless leg syndrome, snoring/sleep apnea, back pains, consult with your medical provider for further evaluation. We hope you will try to implement some of these healthy sleep habits in your nightly routine.