The Importance of Sleep and How to Get More of It

sleep apneaWe know we need it, but we don’t get enough. Sleep can be elusive, and most of us have problems sleeping occasionally. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), at least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, and 60 percent of adults report having insomnia at least a few times a week.

While the occasional sleepless night is nothing to worry about, the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported that chronic insomnia decreases the immune system and leads to health problems such as weight gain and hypertension. These health issues, as well as medication and painful disorders such as arthritis, often result in continued insomnia, creating a vicious cycle.

Other health issues linked to sleep loss include:

  • Impaired memory and learning problems.
  • Less effective decision-making.
  • Daytime drowsiness, thought to affect some 40% of adults per the NSF.
  • Irritability, anxiety, and impatience.
  • Mood swings.
  • Higher stress levels.
  • Diabetes.

The need for sleep varies, with an average of eight hours being the ideal for most adults. Shift workers, truck drivers, medical professionals, and teens and young adults tend to live on less sleep than they truly need, causing problems for themselves and others.

While quantity of sleep is important, quality of sleep is vital to your health. You’re better off sleeping soundly for 7 hours than sleeping restlessly for 9 hours. You can take some simple steps to improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep:

  • Avoid strenuous exercise, alcohol, and caffeine at least four hours before bed.
  • Keep a regular sleeping and waking schedule, even on weekends.
  • Reconsider keeping a television or computer in your bedroom. The light from the screen can disrupt sleep.
  • Make sure your mattress is comfortable, turn it regularly, and replace it after 5–7 years.
  • Keep your room as dark as possible and slightly cool.
  • If your sleep partner tends to toss and turn, consider a larger bed or one of the newer beds that has dual controls for firmness. These modern beds tend to minimize disruption of your sleep if your partner is restless.

While short-term insomnia is usually not an issue, continued sleeplessness may indicate a problem such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. Most sleep disorders go undiagnosed, and could be discovered and treated with a simple test at your local hospital or sleep center. If you have insomnia more than once a week, talk to your doctor about a referral for sleep testing.

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