According to medical experts, lacking sleep may signal a greater health problem. But do you know why you are not sleeping well? Know the difference between a sleep disorder and poor sleep hygiene to help you get well and keep well.

Loss of sleep is a common problem in modern society that affects individuals across the lifespan. We spend up to one-third of our lives asleep, and the overall state of our ‘sleep health’ remains an essential question throughout our lives.

The signs

The main signs of sleep loss include tossing and turning at night, taking too long to fall asleep and frequent disturbances. But it also has an impact on your daytime mood:

  • Daytime sleepiness and yawning
  • Difficulties to concentrate and learning
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability/change in mood
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Fatigue

The pattern

Tossing and turning at night, taking too long to fall asleep, and frequent disturbances. Waking up very early and snoozing during the day.

What is sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene refers to a variety of different practices and habits that promote good sleep quality at night and full daytime attentiveness.

The best practices

Spending an appropriate amount of time asleep in bed while avoiding the extremes of too much or too little sleep is key to achieving good sleep hygiene. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep between 7 to 9 hours a night, depending on their lifestyle. Healthy practices include:

  • Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes. Napping does not make up for inadequate nighttime sleep. However, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance.
  • Exercising to promote good quality sleep. Even 10 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve night sleep quality. workouts should be avoided prior to bedtime.
  • Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime. While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, too much prior to bedtime can disrupt sleep in the second half of the night when the body begins to process the alcohol.
  • Say no to eating a few hours before sleep.  Heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks can trigger indigestion. When this occurs close to bedtime, it can lead to painful heartburn that disrupts sleep.
  • Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps to re-enforce our natural sleep/wake cycle known as the circadian rhythm.
  • Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine.  A regular nightly routine helps the mind and body to sleep. This could include taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, meditation or light stretches.
  • Making your sleep environment pleasant. Mattress and pillows should be comfortable. The bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees – for optimal sleep. Turn bright lights off or adjust them when possible. Avoid the use of technology in the bedroom. Consider using blackout curtains, eyeshades, earplugs, “white noise” machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing.

Sleep disorders: more sleepiness can flag a medical issue

Daytime sleepiness may be resolved with careful evaluation of your bedtime routine and implementation of good sleep hygiene habits. However, persistent daytime sleepiness despite good sleep habits can also be a sign of a medical issue. You should consult your primary care provider to determine an underlying cause. Other symptoms that require further health assessment include low mood, prolonged lack of sleep, snoring, leg cramps or tingling, gasping or difficulty breathing during sleep.

What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders involve problems with the quality, timing and amount of sleep that cause problems with functioning daytime function. A sleep disorder can impact overall health, safety and quality of life. Restorative sleep is crucial to health and wellness.

The most common sleep disorders are:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome also called Willis-Ekbom disease can cause an uncomfortable sensation and an urge to move the legs while you try to fall asleep
  • Narcolepsy – extreme sleepiness condition during the day, falling asleep suddenly anytime, or anywhere.

Not getting enough sleep: long term health effects

  • Lack of sleep interferes with the strengthening of the immune system and the production of infection-fighting cytokines. This may cause prolonged recovery from illness while increasing the risk for chronic illness.
  • Bodyweight can be affected. Two hormones in the body, leptin and ghrelin, control feelings of hunger and satiety, or fullness. The levels of these hormones are affected by sleep. Sleep deprivation also causes the release of insulin, which leads to increased fat storage and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Sleep affects processes that keep the heart and blood vessels healthy including blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation levels. Not sleeping enough increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Cognition and alertness are diminished causing safety concerns and increased risk of injury.
  • Change in mood that may resemble depression with low energy, and poor judgement.

Sleep needs to be a priority in your life to keep well and be well!

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