Sleep is an essential part of living and one that is often taken for granted. The average person spends well more than one-third of his or her life sleeping.
However, sleep is essential to normal functioning. Our body utilizes sleep as a time to rejuvenate, rest, repair and process the many experiences of the day.
Sleep deprivation is known to result in fatigue, irritability, emotional swings, and decreased physical and mental performance, and can even raise blood pressure.
Disorders of sleep are unfortunately common.
Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe the many aspects of the daily schedule that may affect sleep. Believe it or not, we are all born with an internal clock. Many people who suffer from problems with sleep have problems with the functioning of the internal clock. Sleep hygiene refers to the process for resetting our internal clock to help us sleep properly.
The first step to good sleep hygiene is to arrange our sleep environment so that it favors sleep. This means that where you sleep should be quiet, relaxing, reasonably dark and designated specifically for sleep purposes.
A bedroom filled with things that might distract from sleep is undesirable. Removal of projects, television, computer, video games and the like can enhance the sleep environment.
The next step is to develop a routine. The average adult requires seven to eight hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Children and adolescents may require more sleep, while the elderly may require less sleep.
Establishing a sleep routine begins with setting a bedtime and awakening time that account for the desired seven to eight hours of sleep. A person should plan to go to bed at the same time each night and to arise from bed the same time each morning.
For people who have sleep difficulties, this should be the same schedule seven days a week without changes on weekends or holidays. Moreover, even if you do not sleep well on a given night you should still plan to get up and go to bed at the scheduled time. Gradually, the body will conform to the schedule in order to meet its sleep needs.
Another important approach to good sleep hygiene is diet and exercise. Getting regular physical activity and eating scheduled meals made up of a well-balanced diet actually promotes healthy sleep behavior.
For people with sleep difficulties, I often recommend avoidance of caffeine after noon. This includes soda, energy drinks, coffee, tea and chocolate. Caffeine, as a stimulant, can contribute to sleep problems. Also, nicotine and alcohol can lead to sleep problems and should be avoided in those who have difficulty sleeping.
Occasionally, medication is prescribed for a brief period to assist with developing a proper sleep schedule. This requires also working on the aspects of sleep hygiene just discussed.
The medication is used as a bridge to a better sleep schedule. Long-term sleep medication is not advised both because of the potential for side effects and the potential for dependence and tolerance to the medicine.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.