Part 2 of this series examined reasons why you can't sleep. Part 3 looks at what you can do to improve your sleep, and in turn have a better quality of life. This final post details exact steps you can take to manage your sleep habits, and how to be on the lookout for actions that may be harmful to your sleep.
How To Improve Sleep
Sleep hygiene is a set of practices you follow to ensure a restful night's sleep and full daytime alertness. When you incorporate proven sleep hygiene practices into your daily life, you can realize the following benefits:
• enhanced concentration
• better memorization ability
• enhanced work and academic performance and productivity
• the ability to meet commitments
• a better mood
• better health
• enhanced emotional health
• a happier, longer, more fulfilling life
Sleep hygiene best practices
The Sleep Foundation recommends the following practices in order to optimize your sleep hygiene:
• Maintain regular sleep and waking practices - determine how much sleep you need, and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
• Do not nap during the day
• Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine close to bedtime - stimulants can interfere with your ability to sleep, and alcohol disrupts your ability to get a restful night of sleep
• Participate in vigorous exercise in the morning or early afternoon. Relaxing exercise, such as yoga, can be a great way to settle your body down before bedtime
• Do not eat large meals before going to bed
• Get adequate exposure to natural light, which helps regulate your natural sleep/wake cycle - if your environment or lifestyle presents little exposure to sunlight, consider light therapy, which is often used to treat seasonal affective disorder
• Establish a relaxing bedtime routine, and don't engage in stressful activities or conversations right before bed. Do not bring your problems to bed
• Use your bed only for sleeping and sex - don't watch TV, read, work, or listen to the radio when you're in bed
• Create a comfortable sleep environment - your bed should be comfortable, your bedroom shouldn't be too warm or cold, and lighting should be minimal or dark
What Not To Do
Busy lifestyles motivate attempts to circumvent the natural sleep process, but most efforts to artificially induce sleep or wakefulness cause undesirable side effects that negate the benefits of true sleep hygiene.
Skipping sleep in order to stay up late cramming for exams, work on professional projects, or for entertainment leads to sleep deprivation. Students and professionals alike take artificial stimulants, notably caffeine and ADHD drugs such as Adderall, to offset the effects of sleep deprivation and enhance focus and concentration. However, artificial stimulants have side effects that can harm the body and, ultimately, do not stave off the harmful effects of sleep deprivation at all.
Caffeine: Caffeine is a widely-used over-the-counter stimulant. Small amounts of caffeine, such as the roughly 100mg to 200mg found in a typical cup of coffee, can have benefits. But taking too much caffeine can lead to issues such as panic attacks, caffeine addiction and withdrawal, dehydration, emotional fatigue, heightened stress, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, and increased blood pressure. Caffeine intake should be limited to 200mg per day, and caffeine should be avoided near bedtime.
Adderall: Adderall is an amphetamine prescribed for those who suffer from ADHD. Adderall, considered a "study drug," has become popular on college campuses for its ability to help non-ADHD students concentrate. Though it is a prescription drug, Adderall is easily accessible on college campuses, and, presumably, in the professional world.
The journal "Addiction" estimates that 25% of all college students have tried Adderall to improve academic performance, and a study at the University of Kentucky found that 30% of its students had tried Adderall - and 80% of upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities had taken study drugs.
Despite its short-term benefits, Adderall and other study drugs pose major health problems for users who are not prescribed the drugs under medical supervision. These include:
• irregular heart rate
• chest pain
• increased blood pressure
• severe headache
• blurred vision
• sleep deprivation
• loss of appetite
• stomach problems
In addition, the illegal use of prescription drugs can lead to a host of other problems from a legal perspective.
Approved Treatment Options
Combating sleep deprivation means taking a strategic and safe approach to getting a good night's sleep. In addition to following sleep hygiene best practices, you can consider the following approved treatment options for sleep deprivation.
Mental relaxation techniques can help you fall asleep and achieve a deep, restful sleep. Several meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to help you get a good night's sleep.
Deep breathing: Close your eyes and concentrate on taking long, deep breaths, each breath deeper than the one before.
Progressive muscle relaxation: Close your eyes and consciously relax your muscle groups, one by one, beginning with your toes. Work your way up to your head and face.
Guided imagery: Guided imagery helps you attain a restful state by walking you through a progressively calming scene. To start, get a guided imagery CD or podcast specifically designed for sleep. After awhile, you will be able to guide yourself without the help of an audio broadcast.
Meditation: Psychology Today reports that medication exercises can help prepare your body for sleep. Meditation methods include taking a fresh "air break" every 90 minutes during the day, Hakalau, and Hiolani.
The release of melatonin represents the onset of the sleep cycle, and melatonin has been shown to have several health benefits: improved sleep, antioxidant agents that strengthen the immune system, and anti-aging properties. Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter, and it's best to start with small doses and only increase if needed. To treat insomnia, start with .5mg one hour before bedtime and, if that doesn't work, work your way to 1 to 3mg one hour before bedtime. If 3mg doesn't work, increase the dose to 5 to 6mg one hour before bedtime. The goal is to take a dose of melatonin that helps you achieve a restful sleep without making you tired during the day. Work with your doctor to develop the best melatonin therapy treatment plan.
Be aware of potential melatonin therapy side effects and drug interactions; for example, melatonin can cause undesirable effects when mixed with blood thinners, diabetes medications, and birth control pills.
Natural light therapy
Natural light therapy has been shown to be effective against seasonal affective disorder and its sleeping-related issues. Light therapy involves exposure to a light box, or full-spectrum bulbs that artificially reproduce the light emitted by the sun. SAD patients have been successfully treated with light therapy for years. Columbia University reported that 75% of light therapy users experienced major improvements in depressive symptoms, which cause sleep deprivation.
The average light therapy session has users sit, work, or read - essentially, go about their normal routines - in front of a light box. The average treatment lasts between 15 minutes and 3 hours, depending on individual needs and the type of lighting system used. The goal is to foster exposure to sunlight when natural sunlight is scarce, often during the winter months. Lack of natural sunlight is a critical factor in SAD and SAD-related sleep deprivation; thus, light therapy is a safe, proven, and cost-effective means to improve sleep hygiene.
Several over-the-count sleep aids exist to help foster a good night's sleep. Be aware that all over-the-counter options have the potential for undesirable side effects; for example, you can quickly build a tolerance to sleep aids and need more of the drugs to achieve the same effect. In addition, misuse or abuse of over-the-counter sleep aids can be harmful. It's best to consult your doctor before using over-the-counter sleep aids, especially if you plan on long-term use. OTC sleep aids include:
• Diphenhydramine: A sedating antihistamine. Brand names include Benadryl and Unisom Sleep
• Doxylamine: A sedating antihistamine. One popular brand is Unisom SleepTabs
• Valerian: A plant supplement that is purported to foster a good night's sleep
If you have consistently followed sleep hygiene best practices and still have trouble sleeping or staying awake, it's time to speak to a sleep doctor about your options. Conditions such as sleep apnea can be difficult to self-detect, and it's likely a sleep doctor will want to conduct a sleep study to determine the root cause of your sleep-related problem. In some cases, your doctor will prescribe medication to help you sleep. Prescription sleep aids include:
• Eszopictone (Lunesta)
• Ramelteon (Rozerem)
• Triazolam (Halcion)
• Zaleplon (Sonata)
• Zolpidem (Ambien)
• Temazepam (Restoril)
• Doxepin (Silenor)
In addition, some prescription antidepressants can be given in milder doses to foster sleep. They include Amitriptyline, Doxepin, Trazodone (Oleptro), and Mirtazapine (Remeron). As always, be sure to notify your doctor of any other medications or supplements you're taking and any other conditions you have to ensure safety and efficacy when taking prescription sleep aids.
A Better Life Via A Better Night's Sleep
Research has unequivocally demonstrated that a good night's sleep is critical to work and academic performance as well as overall health. Following sleep hygiene best practices should be a priority for everyone. When you have good sleep hygiene, you will be able to lead a more productive, enjoyable, and happier life.
This is the first series of posts by Direct Textbook that aim to help you get the most from your academic and professional life. Future posts will continue to cover topics related to keeping mentally fit so you are ready to take on that exam, interview, or challenging work project. If you have a topic idea you'd like to see us cover, please let us know.