Sleep deprivation can cause no end of problems, and it’s a well-documented fact that most adults don’t get the proper amount or the right kind of sleep every night. Sleep deprivation can cause minor things like irritability, carelessness, slow reaction times and difficulty concentrating at work or school, all of which can drastically affect one's quality of life — and those are just the "minor" problems!
Long-term sleep deprivation can have serious detrimental health consequences, such as memory loss, metabolic problems, high blood pressure, obesity and a weakened immune system.
There is hope, however, for those who cannot seem to solve the sleep problem. There are some simple changes you can make to your daily habits that, taken together, can really help mitigate sleep deprivation and get you back on track to being more alert, healthier and happier.
1. Set (and keep) a regular bedtime.
One of the most basic changes you can make to your lifestyle that can help swing the needle back to "good night's sleep" is to set a specific bedtime and stick to it religiously. While a full eight hours of sleep is the ideal, most people can receive most of the health benefits and become well-rested with seven hours, as long as it's regular and high quality. A regular schedule is critical to programming your body and mind, and once you're in the habit, you will start to get sleepy at exactly the right time every night. Even those of us who are total night owls can still, with a little effort, reprogram to a more healthy sleep schedule. Just make sure that you don't "blow it" on the weekends or during vacations by flip-flopping back to a crazy sleep schedule. While a once-in-a-while 3 a.m. party night is perfectly fine, but don't make it a habit every weekend.
2. Wash your sheets and blankets regularly.
Sounds crazy? Not really: Blankets and pillowcases can accumulate a great deal of shed skin cells, oils, dust and other potential allergens, particularly when dust mites settle in to feast. When your bed clothes are dirty, you may not realize it, but you may be getting a much lower quality of sleep due to breathing problems or allergy-related issues. Plus, who doesn't love that fresh-washed sheets feeling? Crawling into a nice, clean bed makes it just that much easier to fall (and stay) into a deep sleep.
3. Try a high-quality white noise generator.
You may be surprised at how much better you can sleep with a white noise generator. These are machines that sit next to your bedside (like a radio) and generate some kind of constant, gentle background noise. Some are very high tech, and will analyze background noise and compensate with algorithmically generated opposites, while others play back a pre-recorded loop of sounds such as crickets, waves lapping against a shoreline or a gentle rain shower. You may want to be careful though, because some of the more inexpensive models have easily distinguished "loops" of noise that can actually cause a lot of frustration and annoyance once your brain finds the pattern.
4. Avoid reading or watching TV right before bed.
Diving into a steamy romance, action-packed adventure or tear-jerking drama right before bed can cause that runaway "My brain won't shut up!" thought train that can prevent even the most exhausted among us from sleeping well. Try to give yourself at least an hour of cool-down time from mental stimulation. Take the time before bed to do something calming and relaxing. Yoga or meditation before bed can be extraordinarily beneficial to sleep. Imagine how much healthier and calmer you'll feel after stretching and meditating quietly for 30 minutes instead of watching re-runs of ‘90s sitcoms. Besides, that stuff just rots your brain, like grandma always said.
Caffeine is a fantastic natural stimulant, but many people are very sensitive to it and the stimulating effects can be felt for hours after consumption. While that morning cup of coffee is something that many of us require, having a caffeinated soda or latte in the evening is asking for trouble as far as Mr. Sandman is concerned. Try to give yourself a reasonable cut-off time approximately four hours before your scheduled bedtime and stick to it. Even one cup of coffee or other caffeine source at night can cause restless sleep or trouble falling asleep.
Sleep is extremely important. In our crazy, hustle-bustle world it can seem a dreaded inconvenience, but it's a simple basic human need that keeps us going at our best. Hopefully these tips can help you get a better rest, leaving you recharged to tackle each day!
Erica Moss is the community manager for Nursing@Georgetown: http://online.nursing.georgetown.edu