Dr. E Farrell
How's your sleep (and why am I asking?)
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Sleep is a time when the body rests, repairs muscles, organs and cells, reinforces the immune system, and processes learning into long term memory. Not getting enough restorative sleep, can result in mental and physical impairment. It can affect the ability to cope with everyday stressors. We can become more emotionally vulnerable and impulsive. When we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to make decisions based on immediate gratification without regard for long term consequences.
When we are sleep deprived our performance is affected. We are less alert and have slower reflexes. One study showed that drivers who delayed sleeping on long haul trips showed the same level of impairment as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05.
Sleep loss affects our immune system and can cause a drop in natural killer cell activity with only one night of limited sleep. Sleep loss has also been linked to inflammation, obesity, and overall disease mortality. ¹ ²
What can you do if you notice that you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? First, try some of the following tips to improve sleep quality:
1. Have a pattern. Try to go to bed at the same time each day.
2. Exercise regularly but not right before bedtime.
3. Avoid caffeine in the evenings, including chocolate, tea, soda & over the counter medication that includes caffeine.
4. Avoid nicotine before bedtime.
5. Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol is sedating, but as it is metabolized in the liver it tends to disrupt sleep.
6. Avoid looking at your tablet, computer, or phone before bedtime or use a blue blocker. The blue light has been shown to interfere with melatonin production and keep you alert. ³
7. Control the environment. Block out light and noise. You can install black out shades if there is ambient light coming through the window or if you do shift work and sleep during the day.
8. Use the bed for sleep and sex. Do not sit in bed to read, write, use your computer or other activities.
9. If you need to eat, have a light snack but avoid heavy meals and food that may cause digestive troubles such as rich or spicy foods.
10. If you cannot get to sleep after 15 minutes of trying, get up and do something else, such as reading, listening to soft music, or writing in a journal (it’s a good idea to list or write down thoughts you might be ruminating about).
If your sleep does not improve, check with your physician in order to rule out side effects of medications you may be taking or medical issues that can cause sleep problems. If you wake feeling tired, even after a full night of sleep, they may recommend a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder caused when the airway becomes so relaxed that it obstructs airflow. Sleep apnea can result in excess fatigue even after a night's sleep, along with muscle aches and pains. Left untreated it can increase blood pressure and can lead to serious health problems including heart disease.
Your provider may suggest medication. Medications do come with risks and sleep medications are usually not recommended as a long term solution. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia can help address unhelpful patterns of thinking. Excessive rumination, especially at bedtime, can become a habit that keeps you from falling asleep until complete exhaustion kicks in. Cognitive therapy and relaxation skills training can help address these patterns and teach techniques for reducing stressors and quieting the mind.
¹. “Why sleep is important for health: a psychoneuroimmunology perspective” Annual review of psychology vol. 66 (2014): 143-72.
². Besedovsky, Luciana et al. “Sleep and immune function” Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology vol. 463,1 (2011): 121-37.
³. Rahman, Shadab A et al. “Effects of filtering visual short wavelengths during nocturnal shiftwork on sleep and performance” Chronobiology international vol. 30,8 (2013): 951-62.