Sweet Dreams Are Made of This!

By Mary Lizabeth Aquavia, Medical Director, Women’s Health Program

The quality of our sleep isn’t something we think about very often. Many people do not realize that consistently getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to our overall health.

The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Awareness Week 2022, which is scheduled this year from March 13-19, is an annual campaign to educate the public about the importance of sleep. (As a reminder, March 13 is the start of Daylight Saving Time, when most Americans change their clocks and lose an hour of sleep.)

So, this is the perfect occasion to provide you with some handy tips to help you maximize the quality of your sleep – and avoid common mistakes that can lead to a night (or more) of tossing and turning!

The Importance of Sleep

The ideal night’s sleep is between seven and eight hours. Anything less than seven hours is considered problematic.

This is because the number of hours we sleep – and the quality of our sleep – affects many aspects of our overall health, including our mood, mental health, immune system efficiency, metabolism, energy levels, and cognition, among others. Quality sleep is defined by the architecture of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is when the brain restores and retains memories. Most studies suggest this is where we have our most vibrant dreams.

Quality sleep is especially important for people who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Disruption of the metabolic system from lack of sleep potentially can lead to weight gain because metabolic breaks after a bad night’s sleep can trigger a sense of starvation, causing our bodies to crave carbohydrates.

A more serious condition associated with sleep disruption is sleep apnea. Generally, this occurs in people who are somewhat overweight, snore loudly, and are prone to stop breathing while asleep. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to daytime somnolence, hypertension, and coronary issues, including atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm). The good news it can be effectively treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy to dramatically improve mental alertness and wellbeing.

If you have these symptoms, you may be a candidate for a sleep study, so check with your healthcare provider.

Good Sleep Habits

Here are some tried-and-true ways you can help guarantee yourself a quality night’s sleep:

  • Stick to a good sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. If you go to bed late one day, try to get back on track the next day. Adopting a consistent routine will help get your body and mind in the mood for sleep!
  • Use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy only. Avoid using your bedroom for activities – like exercising, watching TV, or paying bills – that may be overstimulating and disrupt your sleep cycle. The idea is to make your bedroom a sanctuary that your brain associates with sleep, causing it to release more melatonin (a natural hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycle) at the right time.
  • Make a relaxation activity part of your bedroom routine.  Remember when you were little and your parents gave you a bath and read you a story before tucking you into bed? Well, you’re never too old to have your own sleep routine! Try relaxing with music, using lavender oils or lotions, meditating, or saying your prayers before bedtime. These activities can help calm your sympathetic nervous system (which gives you bursts of energy) and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (which restores your body to a more restful state).
  • Discontinue screen time.  Put away your laptop, phone, or tablet one to two hours before bedtime. The brain interprets the glow from electronic gadgets as sunlight, which delays the release of melatonin and fools the brain into thinking it’s daytime. It’s OK to read an old-fashioned book in bed – just not an e-reader!
  • Keep a memory notebook on your bedside table. This will allow you to write down anything that might keep you awake at night, such as everything you need to do the next day. Writing them down can help you put them out of your mind until the morning. Better still, keep a memory book handy throughout the day. That way, whatever thoughts you want to record won’t come into your brain right before bedtime.
  • Exercise during the day. It’s important to get regular daily exercise, which will give you more energy, activate your brain at the proper time, and make your body tired for a restful sleep. At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day is recommended. Don’t exercise at night, however, because it may stimulate you and prevent you from sleeping.
  • Buy a sun lamp. Sunshine in the morning is important, so your brain gets the message to wake up. You can buy special lamps for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that you put on a timer to simulate the morning sunshine in your bedroom during the dark days of winter.
  • Check your sleep environment.  Make sure everything is comfortable around you when you sleep. This includes your mattress, pillow, blankets, and the room temperature. Don’t allow pets in the bedroom as they can disrupt your sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before bedtime.  I recommend my patients avoid any caffeinated drinks after the noon hour and not drink alcohol or eat a heavy meal just before bedtime. All will disrupt your body and prevent you from sleeping soundly.

If you follow them consistently every day, good sleep habits like these will tell your brain it’s time to sleep and allow you to wind down so you can experience all the natural phases of the sleep cycle and enjoy deep, restorative, restful sleep.

Sweet dreams!