At an Oct. 15 class for Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 retirees, wellness trainer Judy Zehr lays it on the line: It’s time to wake up to the importance of sleep. A generation ago, Americans slept eight to nine hours a night on average. Now we average seven hours. That’s a problem, because sleep deprivation contributes to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression. It’s serious enough that in 2013 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control declared sleeplessness to be a public health epidemic.
One of the chief culprits is screen time. All artificial light interferes with sleep, but blue light in particular – emitted by televisions, computer screens, and smart phones – prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps the body get to sleep.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to get more and better sleep. Read on.
- Turn. It. Off. Try not to have ANY screen time two hours before you go to bed. If there’s a TV in your bedroom, take it out. Stay away especially from news or exciting TV shows near bedtime; they cause release of cortisol, a stress hormone that keeps you awake.
- Get regular exercise. At least 20 minutes a day, even something as light-duty as gardening … and try to do it before 5 p.m.
- Watch out for caffeine and alcohol. Try not to consume caffeine after noon – including sodas. And don’t drink too much alcohol. It puts you to sleep, but also wakes you up, and causes sleep to be less restorative.
- Relax before bed. Take a bath, get in a hot tub, or just splash hot water on your face. It elicits seratonin, which helps you relax. In place of screen time, read a book, particularly a boring book.
- Pay attention to comfort. It’s okay to be like Goldilocks: Make sure your mattress has the right firmness for your body – not too soft, not too hard. And you don’t want to be too cold or too warm either; cold air and warm blankets may be the best combination.
- Watch out for pills. Don’t be too quick to rely on sleeping pills. Drugs like Ambien and Lunesta can help some people with acute insomnia, but they can also have side effects, and some studies have shown that results are minimal – patients fall asleep on average 13 minutes sooner, and wake up just 11 minutes later.
- ‘Fast’ before you ‘break-fast.’ Don’t eat in the middle of night. You’re training your brain to be hungry then, which can make it more likely you’ll wake at night.
- Count sheep; it’s not just for shepherds. Focus your thoughts on something repetitive and relaxing maybe a mantra. Or try progressive muscle relaxation – tensing and relaxing the muscles starting with your toes and working your way up to your neck and head. You may be asleep before you know it.
- Snoring may be a symptom. If you regularly snore, you might want to get checked for sleep apnea, which can disrupt your sleep.