California Dreamin’

The secrets of a good night’s sleep

Americans have a complicated relationship with sleep. Sometimes we crave it, sometimes we shun it and often we neglect it. But two things are certain: We need sleep in order to function, and many of us are not getting enough of it. Fortunately there are steps we can take to increase the quantity and quality of our sleep.

“We all know that sleep restores energy, but it does more than that,” says Khalid Eltawil, MD, medical director of the UCLA Sleep Laboratory in Torrance. “It helps us consolidate memory, it helps us function cognitively and it helps our mood.”

Lack of sleep can contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and depression. It can also reduce productivity and increase the chance for car accidents, medical errors and other problems.

“There’s a saying about sleep,” notes Dr. Eltawil. “Sleep is as important to your health as diet or exercise. It’s just easier to do.”

But many of us aren’t “doing” sleep very well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared insufficient sleep to be “a public health epidemic.” In a National Health Interview Survey, nearly 30% of adults reported averaging fewer than six hours of sleep per night.


Set the Stage

One of the most important ways to promote better sleep is by creating the right environment. Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and slightly cool, as well as free from clutter.
In addition, sleep experts emphasize that the bedroom should be a place for sleep and sex only, not other activities. So read work reports, catch up on email or talk on the phone elsewhere.

“The habits we form help us with sleep,” explains Dr. Eltawil. “If you do awake activities in the bedroom, your brain becomes confused about the purpose of the area. , ‘Is this a place to be on Facebook and watch TV, or is it a place to go to sleep?’”


Prepare for Your Role

Besides creating an ideal environment for sleep, we need to prepare our bodies and minds for rest. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and heavy or spicy foods in the hours before bed. And while exercise can promote sleep, it shouldn’t be done too close to bedtime.

Maintain a standard bedtime and wake-up time to help your body develop a good circadian rhythm. Even when you go to bed late, try to wake up at your regular time. Dr. Eltawil says naps aren’t necessarily bad but cautions that the time we spend sleeping during the day is deducted from the amount of time our bodies will need to sleep at night.

Many of us spend time in bed reviewing our day, planning the next day or worrying. Schedule some downtime earlier in the day to review these concerns rather than focusing on them at bedtime.

Some people find it helpful to have a pre-sleep ritual. This can include having a light snack, taking a warm bath, spending a few minutes reading or doing some deep breathing.


When to Seek Help

If you’re not sleeping well, keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint habits that may be interfering with your sleep. If you’re still having problems, see your physician. Medical issues, depression and stress can all impact sleep. Or you may be one of the 40 million Americans who suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.

“If you have a good night’s sleep and still feel sleepy the next day, something’s going on,” says Dr. Eltawil. “People may be embarrassed or shy or not know they should talk to their physician. They don’t realize it could be a sign of underlying medical issues and that there are treatments available. We spend one-third of our life sleeping, so it impacts our life quite significantly.”