One of the most common complaints that Dr. Will Baker, a cardiologist with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig, hears from patients is surprisingly not about the heart.
“A frequent complaint we hear daily is, ‘I’m tired,’” Baker said. “‘I’m up all night, I can’t fall asleep, I can’t get back to sleep.’ Millions and millions of people sleep terribly for a lot of reasons, and it’s clearly affecting the quality of their lives.”
Lack of sleep can have a range of mental and physical impacts, such as increased risk for cardiac disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and diabetes. Anxiety, depression and even poor work or school performance may also result.
“It can affect your health,” said Alexa Pighini, a physician assistant with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinic.
The good news is that studies show there are various steps people can take to improve their quality of sleep. Below, Baker and Pighini outline a few.
Establish a sleep routine
Having the same general bedtime and wakeup time every day of the week, even on weekends, is vital to good sleep. Your sleep environment should be quiet and dark, with a comfortable bed and room temperature.
“People don’t seem to realize how this can make a huge difference,” Pighini said. “It’s a pretty easy one to fix. It allows you to get into a sleep-wake cycle.”
Get the right amount
Children and teens typically need more sleep than adults, but some adults need more sleep than others, even up to 10-plus hours a night. To find out how much sleep you need, Baker recommends letting yourself wake up naturally for a few days in a row. At the minimum, people need about seven hours a night.
Give Fido his own bed
Pets should not sleep in bed with you, as their movements can be disruptive. That doesn’t mean, however, that they have to be confined to another room of the house: a recent study by the Mayo Clinic shows it can actually be helpful for people to have a dog sleeping on the floor of their bedroom, as it can give a sense of security.
Limit screen time
Screens, including phones, televisions and tablets, should be put away at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
“People fall asleep with their phone in their hand, and I’m guilty of this, too,” Pighini said. “Research shows you don’t get into REM sleep as quickly, so your quality of sleep is not as good.”
There’s also evidence that blue light from screens can interfere with melatonin production, further disrupting sleep.
Embrace your sleeplessness
If you do wake up, don’t sit in bed trying to fall back to sleep. Find ways to relax mentally and physically. It can help to leave the bedroom to read or do something quietly, and then head back to bed.
Know what helps and hurts sleep
Regular exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly and can improve sleep quality, as long as it’s not done right before bedtime. Managing stress and using relaxation techniques, especially before sleep, results in better sleep quality. Excessive caffeine and energy drinks aren’t ideal for managing daytime sleepiness. A few cups of coffee each morning is harmless for most people, but more than that may keep you up at night. Alcohol can also affect sleep quality, resulting in next day sleepiness.
Get help when needed
Most sleep problems stem from poor sleep habits, but some can point to other issues. Talk with your doctor about medical problems that may interfere with sleep, such as chronic pain, frequent awakening to use the bathroom or possible sleep apnea. Some medications can also interfere with sleep. Regular use of sleeping medication is rarely the way to improve poor sleep.
“If you occasionally have that night when you don’t sleep well, it’s no big deal – don’t worry about it,” Baker said. “If you’re having consecutive days like that, it’s worth looking at what’s going on.”
When changing sleep habits, it’s important to stick with it.
“For the majority of people out there, this is going to take some time and individual effort,” Pighini said. “But the rewards of more energy, a clearer mind and better health are worth it.”
This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Oct. 9, 2017. Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at [email protected].