Thank you to Dr. Subooha Zafar, a sleep specialist from Capital Health, for revealing the intricacies of sleep and what we can do to improve as well as harm our sleep pattern. While we will never be able to sleep like a baby, sleep is just as important as we age. Sleep can have a tremendous impact on our immune system, our ability to focus and retain information, and can increase our risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. In addition, lack of sleep can impact our driving the same, if not more, than drinking alcohol.
So what can we do to improve our sleep and ensure that we are well-rested? First, we need to consistently get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. While this is easier said than done, cutting out caffeine later in the day, resisting the urge to nap, and ensuring the bedroom environment is conducive to sleeping will all help ensure we can fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night. We also want to practice good “sleep hygiene” which include exercise, keeping a consistent bedroom temperature, and practicing mental distraction techniques to keep our brain from running wild as we try to fall asleep. For example, we often think about all of the things that happened during the day as well as what we need to get done the following day as we are trying to fall asleep. Instead, process all of these things earlier in the day so that your mind is free when you lay down; additionally, if you have trouble calming your mind, a simple mental distraction technique is to focus solely on your breathing. By paying attention to the depth and speed of your breathes, your brain activity will slow since you are now focusing on something that involuntary.
While medications can help us in the short-term to gain deep and restful sleep, your body can become dependent on them and just like with any other drug, your body can build up a tolerance which will make them less effective over long-term use. Behavioral strategies such as relaxation training, cognitive therapy, and stimulus control (not having the television on since the changes in volume as well as the light waves emitted from the screen cause your brain to become active and can hinder sleep) can be used instead of medications.