A CDC survey of Americans nightly sleep patterns found that nearly 70% of people reported getting an insufficient amount of sleep in the previous month. Over 10% said that they’d gotten a poor night’s sleep every night during the previous month. A 60 Minutes report found Americans average just 6.7 hours of sleep per night. That’s an astounding 15% drop over the past 20 years.
Many people are proud of the fact they stay up late and rise early, as if it’s a key success factor. But they’re wrong. Scientists who study sleep recommend that adults get an average of 8 hours of sleep every night (and children even more). That means the majority of Americans are sleep deprived.
The CDC report concluded: “Chronic sleep loss is an under-recognized public health problem that has a cumulative effect on physical and mental health. Sleep loss and sleep disorders can reduce quality of life and productivity, increase use of health-care services, and result in injuries, illness, or deaths.”
Here are some questions to determine if you are at risk due to sleep deprivation:
- Do you feel drowsy while driving?
- Are you having trouble concentrating while you’re at work?
- Do you notice that your fuse is getting shorter?
- Do you feel hungry even when you know you’ve had enough food?
- Do you find yourself dwelling on problems?
- Do you struggle to get out of bed most mornings?
- Are you having mood swings?
You can improve your sleep patterns by following these simple steps:
Stick to a regular schedule. Figure out what time you need to go to bed by subtracting 8 hours from the time that you need to get up in the morning. Then develop a schedule that allows you to wind down for an hour or two before that time. That requires avoiding activities that are stimulating your brain before bedtime, such as playing computer games.
Start relaxing an hour before bedtime. Stressful thoughts create muscle tension, and make it hard to fall asleep. It’s essential to create a pre-sleep ritual that disconnects you from the stress of the day. If intrusive thoughts are keeping you up, you might find it helpful to write down the stressors along with your plan for dealing with them the next day. When your mind is calmer, you can use progressive relaxation or meditation to release the tension in your body. Studies have shown learning to use these techniques over a period of several weeks is an effective method for overcoming insomnia.
Make your bedroom a comfortable place. Keep the bedroom at an ideal temperature between 68 and 72 degrees. Even the smallest amount of light or noise can keep some people awake. So eliminate the problem with blinds, music, or white noise. Pets in bed can be a problem as they move and make noise at night. Do not watch TV or eat in bed as those activities can distract you from getting to sleep.
Establish a regular exercise routine. Studies consistently show that getting at least a half-hour of exercise every day improves people’s sleep. Experts advise exercising at least three hours before bedtime to give your body chemistry time to settle back down.
Cut off caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime. Caffeine can take up to 8 hours to get out of your system, so caffeine consumed later than mid-afternoon can cause a sleep disturbance.
Avoid nicotine at night. Smokers may feel that having a cigarette before going to bed relaxes them, but nicotine is a stimulant whose effects are similar to caffeine. Smoking also causes breathing problems which can disturb sleep.
Minimize alcohol consumption. Many people use alcohol as an aid to get to sleep. While it may make falling asleep easier, it also makes getting a good night’s rest more difficult. In addition to disturbing the sleep cycle, it increases the frequency of getting up to use the bathroom.
Eat right and you’ll sleep tight. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed. A full stomach means your body’s working hard to digest the food rather than relaxing. A glass of milk may help you to fall asleep as it contains the sleep-inducing substance tryptophan.
Avoid long naps. While a short 15-20 minute mid-afternoon nap can be rejuvenating, anything longer will likely cause a problem getting to sleep that night.
Talk to a doctor if the problem persists. It takes a minimum of 2-3 weeks to change a habit. If you’re still struggling after that time, consult a sleep specialist.