• Gail MLT

More than beauty sleep

It's nearly impossible to overstate the importance of sleeping well.
Photo credit: natalie_board, iStock.com

A few years ago, as one year was ending and a new year approached, I looked back over the previous 12 months and concluded my greatest accomplishment that year had been recovering the ability to fall asleep naturally.

Some years prior, Lou Gerhig disease had robbed me of a beloved brother and, with him, my ability to sleep unaided. My doctor had prescribed Ambien® and that little pill quickly became a permanent part of my bedtime routine. Each night, I ritually swallowed a tablet and waited for it to override my thoughts. As time went on, I longed for the sleep of my childhood -- to sleep unaided and untroubled -- but getting to sleep on my own continued to be a miserable struggle, and so I’d relent and take a pill. I persisted, however, and eventually, I won. Today, I fall asleep naturally every night but, like so many others and for a myriad of reasons, I sometimes do not get enough hours or the hours I get are disrupted.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of good and sufficient sleep for your physical and cognitive health. Not only does the proper amount of sleep fend off depression and anxiety, it reduces the risk of a long list of ills: hypertension, stroke, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

The recommended number of hours of sleep for adults aged 26-64 years is 7 to 9 hours. For adults 65 years and older, the number is slightly less: 7 to 8 hours. That one hour difference reflects the current thinking that too much sleep (more than 9 hours) may impact memory in older adults, increasing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But perhaps fractured sleep patterns contribute to the longer hours? Just this month in the journal Neurology, Swedish researchers at the University of Uppsala reported their finding that, even in healthy young men, acutely disrupted sleep raised blood levels of t-tau, a biomarker for Alzheimer’s.

Introducing sleep hygiene. The term “sleep hygiene” sounds terribly clinical -- and in fact there is a lot of clinical research behind it -- but what it refers to are simple guidelines that, as healthy habits, can increase your chances of going to sleep naturally and sleeping well. Sleep hygiene recommendations are commonsensical (once understood) and, among other tips, include: establishing a regular bedtime routine, limiting daytime naps to less than 30 minutes, avoiding stimulants (alcohol, spicy food, smoking) before bedtime, and understanding your natural circadian rhythm (your 24-hour biological clock) and what can affect it (like getting adequate exposure to natural sunlight, or limiting your exposure before bedtime to the artificial light coming from your laptop and TV).

There are more sleep hygiene guidelines than those mentioned above and, once understood, the tips are easy for most people to apply. Happily, all the information most people need to achieve a better night’s sleep is readily found online. Google “sleep hygiene” and “circadian rhythm” and you’ll find no shortage of articles on healthy sleep tips, quizzes and assessment tools to understand what you may be doing wrong (or right), as well as downloadable reference materials you may find supportive.

I still yearn for the untroubled sleep of my childhood – but that’s not coming back. Still, I have made progress through adopting sleep hygiene tips, especially in that last hour before heading to bed – and you can, too. As habits, they are not set: I still struggle to put aside my laptop, not check email on my phone, etc. And as with anything related to your health, always talk to your doctor about your questions or concerns before beginning any new regimen.

ONLINE RESOURCES: The Healthy Sleep area of Harvard Medical School’s website is my favorite resource: it breaks the subject down into three sections (Why Sleep Matters, The Science of Sleep, and Getting the Sleep You Need) and offers a number of short videos. Healthy Sleep is a production of the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine and WGBH Educational Foundation. Among other features, the site includes an interesting interactive on “You and Your Biological Clock” Finding Your Sleep/Wake Rhythm. (Adobe Flash is needed for the interactive.)

In addition, the Mayo Clinic provides a number of sleep tips, including the helpful “8 ways to improve sleep quality as you age”. WebMD offers an interesting sleep assessment tool, that can get you thinking about obstacles you may not have considered. The American Sleep Association (ASA) website offers a wide variety of sleep-related topics, including The 7 Best Sleep Apps for iPhones & Android.

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