Treat Yourself to Better Sleep


"I'll sleep when I'm dead," the old adage goes, but how you live depends on how you sleep. A growing body of research indicates that sleep is essential for mental and physical performance, as well as emotional and physiological health. Lack of sleep can affect major health problems including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular troubles and obesity, as well as significantly impair cognitive and motor performance such as driving, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). In fact, one recent study essentially demonstrated that sleep deprivation impaired performance and alertness more significantly than being legally drunk.

And if you think sleep deprivation just makes you cranky, consider the findings of a University of Pennsylvania study. The study found that people who got less than a full night's sleep for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted than they did with adequate sleep. When subjects did get sufficient sleep, their mood significantly improved.

"Sleep is more important than we thought," says Robert Ballard, M.D., a board-certified sleep specialist at the National Jewish Medical Research center in Denver, Colo. "Sleep is viewed as a luxury or as laziness in our society. But if you deprive yourself of sleep, you put yourself at risk - for chronic illness, reduced immune function, cardiovascular disease, impaired cognition and compromised executive mental function, as well as accidents."

Despite the consequences, millions of North Americans aren't getting their Zs. According to NSF surveys, 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. More than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month. And a majority of respondents admit that not getting enough sleep impairs work performance, increases the risk for injuries and making mistakes, and makes it more difficult to get along with others.

You know you need a good night's sleep, but what can you do to get it?

According to Ballard, studies suggest cognitive behavior therapy, an old treatment concept applied in a new way to target sleep, is more effective than pharmacology for insomniacs. Psychologically, thoughts and behavior patterns may be inhibiting your sleep. Reconditioning attitudes and habits can re-program the brain and body to sleep rather than remain alert in bed.

"If people spend too much time awake in bed, it becomes conditioning for awake-ness. That needs to be re-conditioned," says William Moorcroft, Ph.D., a sleep specialist at Northern Colorado Sleep Consultants in Loveland, Colo., and author of Understanding Sleep and Dreams (Kluwer).

For mild insomniacs, Moorcroft recommends establishing a 15-minute ritual before bed as a psychological barrier between the worries of the day and sleeping. Additionally, he advises turning off the television, sleeping in a cool room, and learning to relax the body.

Ballard suggests avoiding caffeine after noon and alcohol altogether, as well as finding a comfortable bedroom environment. For the latter, climate plays a role because extreme temperatures prevent and disrupt sleep. The body naturally cools itself during sleep by decreasing its internal temperature, sometimes as much as four degrees nightly, which is why many sleep researchers recommend sleeping in a cool room. However, even experts fail to agree on what that ideal temperature is.

To complicate matters, couples often find their ideal sleeping temperatures are not compatible. Women often sleep colder than men, and pregnant, nursing and menopausal women tend to experience dramatic temperature changes, which means finding thermostatic harmony can be a nightmare. "My husband and I constantly battle the too hot-too cold sleeping dilemma," said newlywed Jennifer Berry of Boulder, Colo.

One solution comes in the form of a new thermal technology in bedding that makes the Goldilocks promise to keep you "not too hot, not too cold, but just right." Originally developed for NASA to combat the extreme temperature variations astronauts experience in space, Outlast technology employs thermocules to absorb, store and release latent heat energy. When imbedded in fabrics (such as bedding) the imperceptible thermocules dynamically keep track of your individual temperature and absorb or radiate heat as necessary. This allows you to remain a constant temperature (without tossing a leg out from under the covers or yanking the duvet from your partner's side of the bed) while your bed partner remains in his or her own comfort zone.

For Michael Fox of Burlington, Vt., it made all the difference. "When I sleep I am like a furnace. I often wake up in a pool of sweat and have nightmares because of overheating. I have tried for my entire life to find the right combination of blankets and comforters of varying weights. Nothing has ever worked until this [Outlast] comforter. I am totally blown away!" he says. The technology is available in pillows, comforters and mattress pads by EvenTemp by Wamsutta.

Finally, what you ingest affects your rest. A variety of natural herbal teas can ease you into sleep, and both Ballard and Moorcroft agree that the ritual of sipping tea before bed may be as beneficial as the tea itself.

"For Western herbs that are easily found as teas in grocery and health food stores, I recommend lemon verbena, valerian, lavender, passion flower and chamomile, taken an hour or two before bed," suggested Tish McCrea, M.S, L.Ac., a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist in Huntington, N.Y., and professor of Chinese medicine at The New York College of Health Professions in Syosett, N.Y. Multiple Chinese herbs work well as sleep aids, however sleep disorders have varying diagnoses and not all sedative herbs are appropriate for everyone, cautioned McCrea.

For persistent sleep troubles, see a qualified practitioner since it may indicate a serious medical problem and warrant diagnosis from a doctor. But don't lose sleep over it: most sleeping problems can be relatively easily remedied.

"Sleep is not a waste of time," reinforced Moorcroft. "And if you aren't sleeping, there are things that can be done to sleep better."

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Courtesy of ARA Content

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