July 21, 2009 in Features

Sleeping tips, from A to Zzzs

Alisa Hideg

On the Web

The WebMD Sleep Disorders Health Center (www.webmd.com/sleep- disorders/default.htm) is a useful Web site for information on sleep problems.

Remember the first time you tried to stay up all night? So why is it that as adults we are more likely to be sleep deprived and searching for ways to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up rested?

Why is it so difficult when staying awake was so hard when we were younger? As a physician and a parent of an infant, my sleep loss is usually due to nighttime calls and changing diapers, but what happens when you do not know why you are not sleeping?

Almost anything can disrupt a good night’s sleep. Diet, hormones, stress, depression, nicotine, alcohol, health problems, noise, light and temperature can all make it difficult or impossible to fall asleep or stay asleep.

To figure out what is damaging your sleep, I recommend keeping a diary of when you have trouble falling asleep, what thoughts keep you awake, foods eaten, drinks consumed, exercise, snoring, and when or why you wake up in the middle of the night.

When you keep track of these things, it is easier to identify the culprit or culprits so that you can get back to a good night’s sleep. If you try this and still cannot sleep after making some adjustments, your diary will help you talk about the problem with your doctor.

Lack of sleep interferes with coordination and concentration, making driving and other tasks dangerous. Sleep deprivation can make it hard to remember things. We all become more irritable or emotional after a night without sleep.

Studies have linked a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic problems to poor sleep, but of course not sleeping can also just make you plain miserable.

The first thing you can do to improve sleep is to make the best environment in the bedroom by eliminating or reducing things known to interfere with sleep.

Start with the basics – keep the bedroom dark and quiet. When we lived in Alaska, many people had blinds on the windows or wore a mask to bed in the summertime since the sun was out until after midnight. If you sleep with open windows, soft earplugs can help with outside noise.

Try to go to bed around the same time every night and limit naps. It is best to turn off the computer or TV at least one hour before going to bed. If I know I have busy day ahead of me, I make a to-do list before bed.

A good bedtime routine makes it easier to get ready for sleep. It can be as simple as brushing teeth, washing, reading a book, and then turning the lights out. White noise in the bedroom – such as a fan or air cleaner – can help.

Now that we are in the middle of summer, a fan can also help with cooling the bedroom. If the room is still too warm, try sleeping in the coolest part of your home until the weather cools off again.

What we eat and drink also affects sleep. High-fat foods eaten during the day, caffeine after 2 p.m., and alcohol or spicy food right before bedtime can disrupt sleep. I love spicy food, but if I eat it too close to bedtime, I get heartburn at night. Some pain relievers contain caffeine, so I always check the label of medications.

If waking to use the toilet at night is a problem, then it helps to stop drinking fluids after 8 p.m. and to go to the restroom just before bed.

Regular daily exercise helps most people sleep better at night, but exercise within three hours of bedtime can energize the mind and body so much that it is harder to sleep.

Life has its stressors and a night or two of sleep loss is to be expected for most of us, but if you or someone in your family is having sleep problems that go on for more than four weeks, talk with your doctor.

If you want to try a non-prescription medication for sleep, let your doctor know because some of these interact with other medications and have side effects.

Slumber, forty winks, or a few z’s – no matter how you say it, we all need it. So try making some changes, talk with your doctor, and get a good night’s rest.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Veradale Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.

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