Healthy living for parents, teens and children involves getting adequate sleep. This something we all know intellectually, but can be one of the most challenging goals to reach, especially given our 24/7 society. Sleep is critical for families to stay healthy and for children and teens to learn, grow, do well in school and function at their best. When children and adolescents do not get adequate sleep we can see behavioral problems, impaired learning and school performance, sports injuries, mood and emotional regulation difficulties and declines in health including increased risk of obesity. Studies in adolescents show that lack of sleep may be related to high –risk behaviors such as substance use, suicidal behaviors and drowsy driving. Adults are not immune to the effects of a lack of sleep, even if that extra cup of coffee lets you feel alert. Adults need adequate sleep in order to function at their best in the home, driving and at the workplace. In addition, for adults a lack of sleep has been linked to health issues including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. People never get accustomed to sleep loss, but they do become less aware of how impaired they are, even if they are having difficulties with school, work or home functioning and performance. Sleep has significant restorative functions for the brain and the body, so a lack of sleep can interfere with healing from both medical and emotional stressors.
SO, clearly sleep is important, but what gets in the way of a good night sleep? Let’s talk about the four most common reasons you’re not sleeping and what you can do about them.
First is LIGHT. Light at night can delay your circadian rhythm, also known as your body’s natural clock. The color of the light may make the biggest difference, with blue light, emitted from popular light sources such as energy efficient bulbs, televisions and computer screens being the light that has the most impact. The fix is to turn down your lights an hour or so before bed. Hang blackout curtains or wear a sleep mask if light shines continuously. You can also download programs like f.lux (justgetflux.com) that can change the spectrum of your computer screen to reduce the blue light.
Second is TECHNOLOGY. The National Sleep Foundation says that more than 95% of Americans use some type of gadget within an hour before bed. The more time spent on the devices, the more wired your brain will be and the less sleep you are going to get. It is both an issue of the light emitted and becoming involved in a text conversation or email exchange which can lead to increased stress or distract the user from the goal of getting to sleep. This is not just an issue for teenagers, but is one of the biggest impeders of sleep for adults. In fact, the issue goes beyond use before bed as a recent study revealed that 1 in 4 parents said they had sent or read text messages, emails or other electronic communications AFTER they initially went to bed in the week before the survey. Not surprisingly, children of these parents were more likely to have also send or read texts after going to sleep. The recommendation is to turn off small screen devices an hour before bed and give them a rest until morning.
Third is TEMPERATURE. The body’s core temperature decreases as we sleep. If it’s too warm in your bedroom, your body can’t cool properly and people with a higher core body temperature are more likely to experience insomnia and sleeplessness. The ideal bedroom temperature is around 65 degrees. As a bonus, a colder bedroom may boost your metabolism – even during the hours you are awake!
Fourth is STRESS. Unfortunately, anxiety and stress can create a cycle of sleeplessness; it makes sleep more difficult and sleeplessness drives up anxiety. Worrying does impact both the ability to relax and fall asleep and then can also cause middle-of-the night awakenings and waking up too early. There are several ways to address this including daily exercise (preferably not too close to bedtime as exercise raises body temperature) and a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine which includes listening to soothing music or reading. Studies have shown that people listening to soothing music for 45 minutes before bedtime spent more time in the restorative phases of sleep. Of course, the late night emails and texts do not help with stress and so again, turning off those devices can help with stress.
DR JENNIFER PETRAS, M.D.