Ronald L. Cooper DDS, FAGD

Sleep is essential for the maintenance of good physical and mental health.

Whether you are experiencing poor sleep patterns due to stress or serious health problems, lack of sleep and sleep disorders are continuously becoming common in the United States. According to a recent study, more than 75% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 59 experience difficulties getting a good night’s rest.

What’s getting in the way of sleep?

Screen use before bedtime.  More than 75% of adults’ own smartphones. As much as it’s good to embrace the current technology, many people go to bed with their phones and chat with their friends on social media until they fall asleep. However, doctors recommend not using smartphones, tablets, or laptops one hour before bedtime. This is because the light emitted by the screens of these devices can trick your brain to think that it should be waking up when it’s supposed to be winding down. The result is that your brain undergoes a process known as melatonin suppression where it reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.

Consumption of caffeine.  Chocolate, tea, and coffee contain caffeine which can interfere with your sleep cycle. Coffee, for instance, contains 95 -165 mg of caffeine per cup and black tea contains 25-48 mg of caffeine per cup. If you consume caffeine six hours before bedtime, you could find yourself reducing sleep time by more than one hour.

Alcohol.  You may think that a few glasses of wine will make you fall asleep faster but the consumption of alcohol can disrupt your sleep cycle. After consuming alcohol, you may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and not sleeping thereafter. This is because alcohol increases the production of adenosine, a chemical that induces sleep and causes drowsiness. However, as soon as this effect wears off, the sleepiness will leave you immediately making you wake up before a full night’s sleep.

Inconsistent bedtime. As you work hard to make ends meet, you could find yourself rotating shifts and working at night and resting during the day. This, in turn, makes it hard to adjust to a regular sleep schedule which leads to insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation. Also, taking long naps could cause poor sleep at night.  If you do take naps, 20-30 minutes is all you need.

Other reasons why you may not be getting enough sleep

  • Hormonal changes
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Uncomfortable bed
  • Doing exercise close to bedtime
  • Stress
  • Keeping lights on

Common sleep disorders that could get in the way of sleep

There are a variety of sleep disorders that can interfere with sleep and affect normal physical, mental, social and emotional functioning.

Sleep apnea.  Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing during the sleep cycle.  Interrupted breathing is caused by soft tissue collapsing and blocking the airway. This prevents the body from getting an adequate amount of oxygen while sleeping.  Sleep apnea can result in less energy, decreased mental performance, and chronic health issues. A few signs of sleep apnea are snoring loudly, making choking sounds or restless sleep.

Types of sleep apnea

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Happens when your throat muscles relax
  • Central sleep apnea: Happens when your brain fails to send accurate signals to the muscles responsible for breathing control
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: Happens when you have both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is very dangerous to your health because, in addition to preventing sound, restful sleep, the repeated continuous episodes of deprivation of oxygen when asleep can increase the risk of stroke, sudden death, and heart attack, and can as well raise your blood pressure.

Insomnia.  Insomnia simply refers to a condition where you stay asleep for a long time, or you have difficulties getting to sleep. Insomnia can be a result of anxiety, jet lag, stress, digestive problems, or hormones. It could also be a symptom of other health conditions.  Insomnia can affect quality of life and overall health thereby being a potential cause of irritability, depression, difficulty concentrating, impaired work, and weight gain. Insomnia is common in the US and affects 50% of the adults at some point in their lives and prevalent among adults aged 30 years and above. Insomnia is classified as;

  • Transient insomnia: Insomnia can only last for a few nights at a time
  • Intermittent insomnia: Insomnia occurs periodically
  • Chronic insomnia: Insomnia happens regularly

Parasomnias.  Parasomnia is a very common sleep disorder that makes you move or behave while sleeping abnormally. It includes sleep talking, nightmares, sleepwalking, groaning, teeth grinding, and bedwetting.

Restless leg syndrome.  Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is an uncontrollable desire or urge to move your legs when resting. You can also experience unpleasant tingling, burning, aching and you may even feel like something is crawling in your calves. These symptoms are common during the day when taking rest, and very prevalent at night too, and you could find yourself kicking or moving your limbs hundreds of time per night. RLS has been linked with various health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and ADHD.

Narcolepsy.  Narcolepsy is a central nervous system disorder where your brain fails to take control of sleep-wake cycles. You end up experiencing sleep attacks, and you can uncontrollably fall asleep during unusual circumstances like when eating. Narcolepsy could cause sleep paralysis which can make you unable to move correctly as soon as you wake up. Narcolepsy occurs on its own, but health experts associate it with neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis.

Tips that will help you get better sleep during the night

Exercise regularly.  Twenty to thirty minutes of daily exercise can help you sleep better during the night. For the best night’s rest, exercise five to six hours before bedtime.

Stay away from caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Caffeine keeps you alert and acts as a stimulant to keep you awake. Sources of caffeine include soft drinks, diet drugs, coffee, some pain relievers, and chocolate. Smoking should also be avoided six hours before bedtime as you could find yourself waking up in the middle of the night because of nicotine withdrawal. If you want to get enough sleep, cut the consumption of coffee early in the afternoon as this will help you avoid the disruptive effects of the stimulants on good sleep.

Practice relaxing bedtime rituals.  After a busy or stressful day, you might find yourself still wound up at night.  Reading, listening to your favorite music, or taking a warm bath, can help you relax and make falling asleep easier.

Don’t lie in bed awake.  Ever get in bed expecting to sleep but find yourself wide awake? To fall asleep easier, avoid lying in bed awake.  Get up and listen to your favorite music or read until you feel tired or sleepy. Staying awake in bed can increase anxiety and make it harder to fall asleep.

Control the temperature and environment of your bedroom.  Make your bedroom a perfect sleeping place by controlling its environment and temperature. Extreme temperatures (too hot or cold) can prevent you from falling asleep.  Also, make your bedroom dark and quiet for a peaceful sleep.

Melatonin supplement.  Melatonin is a sleep hormone that tells your brain that it is time to go to sleep.  If you have trouble sleeping, your doctor may recommend a melatonin supplement to enhance sleep quality and help you fall asleep faster. Please consult your internist before taking a melatonin supplement for sleep. In addition, be aware and discuss the way melatonin is metabolized and the risk of delays in efficacy.

Final thoughts

The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep can be very disruptive to our overall health. A night of high-quality sleep is essential for good physical and mental health. If you find yourself unable to sleep, consulting with a healthcare provider can be the first step toward a good night’s rest. 

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