Dr. Oz: How to Sleep Better
As a father of four, a surgeon, and a talk show host, I know all about sleepless nights. More than 25 years ago, when I was a surgical resident, I conditioned myself to get by on just two or three hours of sleep a night. I can recall walking down an empty hospital corridor after a long shift and seeing the sun rising silently over the city. I often had trouble drifting off when I got home—and continued to have insomnia even after my residency ended.
I wasn’t alone. Nearly half of all Americans have occasional insomnia, whether because of stress, hormonal changes, or poor bedtime habits; about 15 percent are plagued by chronic sleeplessness.
And that’s a problem. Waking up exhausted doesn’t just take a toll on your mood and your performance at work; inadequate sleep can lead to serious health problems—including obesity, cancer, and heart disease—and shortened life expectancy. While you’re sleeping, your body rejuvenates the connections between brain cells, renews its immune function, improves the response to insulin, and secretes growth hormone, which is essential for healthy skin and muscles. People who sleep fewer than six hours a night have a 50 percent higher risk of viral infections and an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke. A new study even suggests that a lack of sleep heightens your risk of Alzheimer’s.
That said, insomnia isn’t something to lose sleep over; plenty of simple strategies can help you get the rest you need. I’ve put together this four-week plan to ensure you sleep better and longer, starting tonight.
Week 1 - Assess Your Bedroom
Dim the lights. Insomnia feeds off the minor details of modern life, like the soft blue glow from a TV, a computer, a cell phone, a PDA, or even the digital clock on your nightstand. That blue light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone. Crack open a book rather than watching reruns just before bed, and cover up blue displays you can’t shut off. Place an orange lightbulb (available at Home Depot or other home improvement stores) in your bedside lamp; its glow lets you read or relax without actively inhibiting melatonin.
Go mattress shopping. As anyone who’s ever been up coughing, wheezing, or blowing his nose can attest, asthma and allergies can significantly affect the quality of your sleep. And one very common cause of both conditions could be living in your mattress. Dust mites are microscopic arachnids that feed on human skin and are a major trigger for asthma and allergies. These bugs like to make their home in beds because of the steady supply of food; the older the mattress, the more likely that mites have taken up residence. If yours is more than five to seven years old, it may be time for an upgrade. (If your mattress is newer than that, consider buying a mite-resistant casing instead.)
Chill out. Keeping your body cool slows down all of the metabolic processes, including the mental whirring that prevents you from drifting off. The worse your insomnia, the colder your bedroom should be. Start at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and crank it down to 65 degrees (or even as low as 60 degrees) if you still can’t get any rest.
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Week 2 - Creat a Better Bedroom Routine
Don’t go to bed hungry. You may think you’re doing your waistline a favor by skipping dinner or not eating after 6 p.m. when your bedtime is midnight, but a growling, empty stomach makes it harder to fall asleep, and that can derail your diet. Researchers at the University of Chicago withheld sleep from study participants and found the lack of shut-eye altered appetite-regulating hormones. The subjects reported feeling hungrier, with strong cravings for calorie-dense, carb-rich foods, such as sweets, salty snacks like potato chips, and starchy foods like pasta.
Put a cap on your nightcap. Surveys show that up to 19 percent of people use alcohol to help nod off at night. But after the initial tranquilizing buzz wears off, alcohol often results in more fitful sleep. As your body withdraws from the drug, you may experience symptoms such as waking up in the middle of the night or the inability to reach a deep sleep. A better pre-bed beverage: chamomile tea, which research shows may have a calming effect.
Slip on some socks. Feet often feel colder than the rest of the body because they have the poorest circulation. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology in 2000 suggests that wearing socks to bed keeps the blood vessels in your feet dilated, drawing blood away from your core and cooling you off, which initiates sleep.
Week 3 - Insomnia-Proof Your Lifestyle
Don’t just lie there. If you suffer through hours counting sheep, you may soon come to associate your bed with the stress of insomnia. In fact, studies show that spending less time between the sheets—a technique known as sleep restriction—may promote more restful snoozing and, with time, help make your bed a welcome sight at the end of a long day. Calculate the number of hours you actually spend asleep, and then limit your time in bed to no more than that amount. Start with a routine that gets you up at the same time every morning—even if it's quite early, and even on the weekends. Once you're falling asleep more easily at night, you can slowly push your wake-up time forward.
Time your workouts right. Combined with a regular bedtime routine, exercising four times a week may increase your overall sleep time by 1.25 hours each night, according to a recent study published in the journal Sleep Medicine. Why is working out so effective? Exercising significantly increases your core temperature; as your body returns to its baseline a few hours later, your temperature measurably drops, making it easier to drift off. The best time to work out: late afternoon or early evening (at least two hours before bedtime), so your body temperature begins falling just as you’re getting ready for bed.
Break your smartphone addiction. Constantly checking email or scanning your favorite websites stimulates the brain, preventing you from winding down at night. Some research suggests that simply exposing yourself to wireless signals may interfere with sleep. In a major joint study, researchers in Sweden and at Wayne State University in Michigan found that people subjected to a substantial amount of these signals right before bed reported headaches, more difficulty falling asleep, and less restful slumber. The solution: Keep your cell phone out of reach at night, and try to spend less time on it during the day.
Week 4 - Take Control of Sleep-Robbing Health Conditions
Put your shower massager to good use. A warm bath and a massage can help anyone nod off more easily, but they can be particularly helpful if leg cramps keep you awake. Evidence shows that heat and leg massage can improve the symptoms of restless legs syndrome, a disorder that affects up to 10 percent of the population and is characterized by cramping and an unpleasant urge to move your legs, especially at night. If symptoms persist, ask your doctor whether you could benefit from taking magnesium, which has been shown to relieve leg cramps, or a prescription medication.
Lose weight. Those extra pounds, particularly around the neck, put you at greater risk for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition in which the soft palate at the back of the throat collapses, causing your airway to become blocked during sleep. OSA increases the risk of heart disease and stroke; the hallmark symptom is loud snoring with intermittent pauses in breathing, as air tries to squeeze through the narrowed passageway. Research shows that losing just 10 percent of your body weight significantly improves symptoms of OSA—including snoring.
See your dentist. Snorers may also benefit from a mouth guard—a small plastic device worn during sleep to help prevent the soft palate from collapsing. Even if you don’t have OSA, controlling snoring is important; a recent study showed that snoring more than doubles your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, one of the major predictors of future cardiovascular disease. Interrupted sleep, often a result of loud snoring, increases this risk even further.
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