March 7-13 is National Sleep Awareness week, which is a perfect time for me to offer some suggestions about habits that can help you sleep well.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that women are more likely than men to have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night, but polls have found that many women get only 6 hours a night. Many of us have multiple interruptions in our sleep — a snoring bedmate, a crying child, or hot flashes followed by chills.
Research on sleep duration and breast cancer risk isn’t conclusive, but we know that getting less than 6 hours per night can lead to trouble. Much of the repair of the everyday wear and tear of living happens during the night. Sleep deprivation can cause low grade inflammation, which is linked to almost all types of cancer and heart disease. Too much light at night has been linked to higher breast cancer risk — which may be due to lower melatonin levels. Melatonin is the sleep hormone that comes out in darkness. It appears to have an important role in regulating normal cell growth.
Sleeping 8 hours a night is as important for your well-being as a healthy diet and regular exercise. But after working all day, doing chores, and finding some time to spend with your family and friends, it can be hard to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Once you’re in bed, you may find yourself distracted by television, a book, your mobile phone, or iPad. And when you finally do turn out the light, you may find yourself worrying about bills, your job, your kids, and everything else that’s stressing you out.
So how do you turn in, tune out and get a good night’s sleep?
Your bed is for two things only: sleep and sex. That’s it. Don’t read a book, watch TV, talk on the phone, check your email, log on to Facebook, or do work in bed. When you go to bed, turn your clock toward the wall. Watching the clock won’t help you fall asleep, it will only make you frustrated. If you’re in bed and can’t fall asleep, don’t stay there — remember,the bed is for sleep and sex only. Get up and do something pleasant and relaxing like reading a calming book or listening to soothing music. Don’t do anything stressful like pay bills or watch an action movie. When you feel drowsy, go back to bed. One practical point: you might have to decide which is more important, sleep or sex. If you decide that you want both on a particular night, then go to bed early so you can incorporate both without losing sleep.
Maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule. Your body gets used to falling asleep and waking up at a specific time, but only if you stick to it. Even if you don’t have to get up at the same time every day, keeping to a regular sleep schedule is important for quality rest.
Don’t nap. Naps are OK if you conk out right away and stay asleep. But if falling asleep is a problem, don’t nap during the day. You want to sleep continuously for many hours at night, not a few hours here and there during the day.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy/spicy/sugary foods 4 to 6 hours before you go to bed. Caffeine and alcohol can disrupt your sleep and the other foods may cause reflux or stomach upset.
Exercise regularly — daily if you can — but not right before bed. Exercise in the morning or afternoon can help you sleep more deeply. But exercise tends to boost our alertness, so exercising an hour before you go to bed may leave you too keyed up to sleep.
Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible. Make sure your pillow and bedding are comfortable for you. If your pillow has flattened out, you may want to get a new one. Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Most people find a cool room is best for sleeping. Block out all extra light, including your clock and any light from outside. Don’t turn on a light if you get up at night. Instead, put a low-watt or a red-bulb nightlight in your bathroom.
To learn about more tips for good sleep, read our Ask-the-Expert Online Conference transcript, Sleep Well: Healthy Habits for Good Rest.