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Sleep On It

I’ve never been a good sleeper. When I was in high school, I had a paper route that got me up at 3:30am, seven days a week, in addition to after-school sports and working on my family’s mint farm. In graduate school, I survived on three hours of sleep a night as I balanced my studies with a full-time job and three kids. Now I do a little better; I average about five or six hours of shut eye. In the mornings, I always tell myself I need to get to bed earlier, but fast forward 18 hours or so and it’s easy for me to find excuses why I can stay up a little later.

Sleep is like exercise – if you don’t make time for it, you’ll just have to fit it in when you can, and you definitely won’t get as much as you need (at least on a consistent basis). Sleep is when our bodies repair and recharge, mentally and physically. Without enough sleep, we are irritable, gain weight, experience delayed reaction times and dulled mental functions, and may become depressed. Sleep is so important, in fact, that if anyone (human or animal) is continuously deprived of all sleep, they will experience hallucinations, become psychotic and then comatose, and eventually die.

Another side effect of sleep deprivation is an increased risk of injury to muscle fibers; you are more likely to experience muscle pulls and tears when sleep deprived because your body hasn’t had a chance to adequately repair the damage done from the previous day. This damage continues to pile on until it results in an injury.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to become sleep deprived. Even one night with less than your optimal amount of sleep can result in deprivation symptoms. Common wisdom tells us 7-8 hours of sleep a night is the right amount, but some people (kids and teenagers, expectant and nursing mothers, athletes, individuals with an illness or injury, etc.) may need more. Just listen to your body – if it tells you it wants nine and a half hours, then that’s what it needs.

If you’re part of the 15% of the population who identifies themselves as “morning people,” then congratulations – you probably don’t have a problem getting to bed on time. But for the rest of us who seem to wake up just when we’re supposed to be shutting down, here are some tips for better bedtime habits:

Go to bed and get up around the same time every day, even weekends. Depriving yourself of sleep during the work week and trying to “catch up” on weekends not only doesn’t work, it prevents your body from settling into a healthy routine.
Make the bedroom for sleeping. Get rid of distractions, like phones and televisions. Books are okay, but if you’re the type to read all night without realizing it, make them off limits at bedtime.
Get enough exercise. Regular physical activity gives you that “good tired” kind of feeling and can make falling asleep easier, but don’t work out right before bed because it often takes time to wind down enough to sleep.
Forgo the substances. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine all interfere with sleep and should be avoided for several hours prior to bedtime. As for sleeping pills, the vast majority of people who use them don’t really need them. Explore other options (such as the ones listed above, for starters) for treating your sleeplessness before you resort to pills, and then only do so under the supervision of an experienced physician.

If you’re like me, you’ve been sleep deprived for so long that it feels normal, and it’s easy to convince yourself that only getting a few hours each night is okay. Unfortunately, we need to wake up, so to speak, and start giving our bodies the rest they deserve. Until next time, sweet dreams, my friends!

– Alan

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