Sleep

One in five Americans sleeps less than six hours a night—a trend that can have serious personal health consequences. Sleep deprivation increases the risk for a number of chronic health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. If you have trouble sleeping, the following strategies can help you get more sleep.

Check for underlying causes. Some conditions or medications may be interfering with your sleep patterns. Treating a condition or adjusting a medication may be all it takes to restore better sleep.

Practice good sleep hygiene. Use your bed for sleep and sex only, block as much noise and light as possible, go to bed and wake at the same times each day, and get out of bed if you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes.

Nap if needed. If you like to nap, get your daytime shut-eye in midday. Naps late in the day can interfere with sleep later. If your problem is difficulty getting to sleep at night, then not napping can make you sleepier at bedtime and more likely to stay asleep.

Exercise earlier, not later. Exercise stimulates the body and brain, so make sure you finish exercising at least three hours before turning in.

Watch your diet. stay away from foods that cause heartburn. Ban caffeine-rich food and drinks (chocolate, tea, coffee, soda) at least six hours before bedtime. Don't drink alcohol for at least two hours before bed.

See a sleep specialist. If your own efforts aren't working, you'll want the help of a sleep professional to both diagnose your problem and propose behavioral and possibly drug treatments.

Sleep Articles

Happy - and healthy - trails to you

It's summer, a prime time for getting away. But even a minor health problem can spoil a vacation. And a major one — well, that can cause regret about ever leaving home. To get some practical, health-related vacation tips, we contacted several well-traveled members of the Health Letter editorial board and consulted a few other sources. Here are just a few suggestions: More »

Too early to get up, too late to get back to sleep

Sleep-maintenance insomnia, the inability to remain asleep during the night, may be caused by health problems, depression, or stress. Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) provides better long-term relief for insomnia. Maintaining good sleep habits and practicing relaxation techniques may also lead to a better night's sleep. More »

Insomnia: Restoring restful sleep

Insomnia is a troubling condition, but it can be addressed through behavioral changes and by practicing better sleep habits. Medication may be helpful in the short term, but proper nutrition, regular exercise, and minimizing stress are preferable. More »

Sleep apnea wakes up heart disease

The snorts, whistles, gasps, and groans you make while sleeping may do more than rob you and your bed partner of a good night's sleep. They may steal years of your life, too. That's the message from two large studies that looked at the influence of sleep apnea, a special cause of snoring, on life span. When you breathe, air usually flows soundlessly through the nasal passages and the pharynx (the back of the throat), and then on into the lungs. During sleep, the small muscles that hold open the pharynx relax, allowing the tissue to flop into the airway. Air rushing through this loose tissue can make it vibrate. We hear the vibrations as snoring. In people with simple snoring, the airway remains open. Sleep apnea is a different story. People afflicted with this common condition temporarily stop breathing many times a night. In those with the most common kind, obstructive sleep apnea, the soft tissue of the palate or pharynx completely closes off the airway. The brain, sensing a drop in oxygen, sends an emergency "Breathe now!" signal that briefly wakens the sleeper and makes him or her gasp for air. More »

Nighttime awakenings in menopause may be caused by sleep disorders, not hot flashes

Hot flashes aren't anybody's friend, but they may be getting an unfair rap for disrupting women's sleep at midlife. Studies have often reported that sleep problems increase during the menopausal transition, reinforcing the idea that hot flashes (also called vasomotor symptoms) are to blame. But even under controlled conditions in sleep laboratories, the connection between hot flashes and sleep disruption remains unclear. Moreover, in certain circumstances, vasomotor symptoms may be the result — not the cause — of nighttime awakenings. Now, a study concludes that some of the sleep problems that women typically attribute to hot flashes may instead be caused by primary sleep disorders such as apnea. The findings suggest that women may not be receiving appropriate treatment for their sleep difficulties. To determine the cause of poor sleep in peri- and postmenopausal women, researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit assessed the sleep of 102 women, ages 44 to 56, who reported having trouble sleeping. The researchers found that 31 women had periodic limb movements (PLM), 23 had sleep apnea, and six had both. In other words, 53% had a primary sleep disorder. Among the entire group, 56% had measurable hot flashes. A separate analysis of the data showed that while apnea, PLM, and brief awakenings were the best predictors of poor sleep in the laboratory, on the questionnaires completed beforehand, poor sleep was more likely to be associated with anxiety and hot flashes during the first half of the night. The Wayne State investigation is the first to examine menopausal sleep complaints using both objective and subjective measures. The study was small and may not be representative of all menopausal women with sleep complaints. But the finding that half the women in this sample had primary sleep disorders, not just hot flashes, bears further investigation. Sleep problems are often assumed to result from hot flashes, but treating hot flashes isn't likely to resolve a serious underlying sleep disorder. More »

Repaying your sleep debt

Besides the effects of fatigue and irritability, a sustained sleep deficit can lead to a greater risk of other health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. More »