By Darline Turner-Lee
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again-sleep is vastly under rated. Seriously, how often are you tired, so tired that you could just lie down and pass out? Yet the thought of the kids, bills, laundry and that one last assignment for your business sends a last minute surge of adrenaline through you-just enough to get it all done. But what does it cost you? Typically, it costs you a full night’s sleep. Instead of the recommended 7-8 hours of rest the average American woman is often running on anywhere from 4-7 hours of sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that as many as 50% of American adults experience sleep disturbances at any given time, either difficulty falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. Surprisingly, few people go to the doctor for insomnia and only 6% of adults have a clinical diagnosis of insomnia. Many people (moms especially) don’t even classify their erratic sleep patterns as insomnia because much of their lack of sleep is self induced. First they routinely stay up late and/or get up early to work on chores or projects or to tend to the children. And the time they actually spend in bed is often fraught with worry. Yet this constant lack of restful sleep can have serious, even deadly, consequences.
People who don’t get enough sleep are impaired during their daily activities. Research studies show that insomnia leads to impaired cognitive functions such as the ability to perform calculations, reasoning and judgment. When you don’t get enough sleep your response times are delayed. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that as many as 100,000 auto accidents may have sleep deprivation as the root cause. Sleep deprivation is linked to impaired insulin regulation that may lead to diabetes. Hormonal imbalances linked to sleep deprivation cause such problems as menstrual disorders and impaired fertility. Insomnia is also linked to decreased leptin levels and obesity. Leptin regulates our feelings of satiety. When we don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels fall and we overeat.
So why is sleep so important? I explain it to my clients this way. Let’s say your body is a high rise office building and sleep is like the night janitorial crew. Every evening the office building is empty so that the cleaning crew can come in and perform their maintenance tasks. Normally the office building is vacant by 8pm. The cleaning crew comes in and does a thorough maintenance. They empty all of the trash cans and pick up any extraneous trash left about. They wipe down all of the tables, clean all the eating areas; clean all the bathrooms, restock toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, soaps and lotions. They sweep, vacuum and clean floors, perhaps wipe windows and tidy up. If this is a large office building, this may take several hours to complete, but with the proper time allotment, the janitorial crew is able to get it all done. When office workers return to work the next morning, the building is pristine and ready to go.
When the building is not cleared out and workers remain, the janitorial staff can’t do their jobs efficiently. They have to work around people and in an effort not to disturb them they may not clean certain areas or stock supplies in those areas. If workers continue to work late and remain in the way of the janitorial crew, over time the office building will run critically low on supplies, will become filthy in some areas, be in need of repair in other areas and over time will begin to break down.
So it is with your body. When you get 7-8 hours of sleep, your body very efficiently gets rid of wastes, cleans out dead cells and restores its blood supply, replenishes its hormone levels, heals minor wounds, fights off infections and refuels the inner energy levels. Everything is attended to. If repairs are needed they are performed. If “supplies” are needed they are replenished.
When we repeatedly don’t get 7-8 hours of sleep and build up what is called a sleep debt, we begin to experience memory loss, inability to reason, inability to calculate and perform higher brain functions. Our bodies also begin to break down; becoming ill easily, prone to falls, accidents and injuries.
If you have difficulty sleeping, consult with your healthcare provider. You may have an underlying condition such as depression, restless leg syndrome or obstructive sleep apnea that is the root problem. These conditions can be corrected allowing you to return to restful sleep. If your sleep debt is due to having children, try to work out a schedule with your partner so there are one or two days a week when you can sleep undisturbed. You may also need to find some child care (grandma, older siblings, a sitter or baby sitting co-op) support so that there are a few times each week when you can rest and “pay on your sleep debt.”
If you do consult with your healthcare provider and don’t have any underlying health condition causing your insomnia, try these techniques to improve your sleep.
Go to sleep the same time every night, and get up at the same time every morning (even on the weekends). It will help your body develop a sleep rhythm.
Create a sleep ritual and stick with it. Having a routine such as a bath before bed prepares your body and mind for sleep.
Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Get rid of clutter and discordant objects such as exercise equipment or your child’s crib and toys in your bedroom. Studies show that a creating a calming environment is conducive to good sleep.
Take the Television out of your bedroom. While many people sleep to the television, studies show that the flashing lights are stimulating and actually disrupt your sleep. At the very least, turn the television off when you go to bed to sleep.
Save your bed for sleep and sex. Don’t read or do work in bed. If you can’t sleep, get up until you feel sleepy enough to lie down again.
Don’t eat within 2 hours of going to bed. A full belly can be uncomfortable and hinder your ability to relax and get comfortable enough to go to sleep.
Avoid coffee or caffeinated beverages late in the day. Caffeine permeates and stimulates the body in as little as 5 minutes. Levels peak after about 30 minutes and half the “dose” of caffeine remains after 4 hours. Now these times can vary from person to person. Caffeine is more rapidly metabolized by smokers and more slowly metabolized by infants, pregnant women, and those with liver disease. Even if you aren’t in one of the aforementioned categories, if you are having trouble sleeping, avoid late day caffeine.
Exercise to help you sleep, but don’t exercise right before going to sleep. Exercise helps shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, helps you to sleep longer and helps you get more restorative sleep. However, exercise initially stimulates the body. Don’t exercise right before going to bed or you won’t be able to fall asleep.
If all else fails, ask your healthcare provider for a sleep aid. Melatonin is a hormone that is very effective for sleep and non habit forming. It is available in many health food stores. Prescription sleep aids are also available. Use these drugs cautiously under professional supervision to avoid daytime grogginess and dependence.
Darline Turner-Leeis the owner and Founder of Mamas on Bedrest & Beyond, which provides information, support and resources to high risk pregnant and new mamas. Learn more about Darline at www.mamasonbedrest.com
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