Sleep: How you function today affects how you sleep tonight

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

3/25/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Maybe the last time you slept like a baby was when you were a baby. Maybe you used to fall asleep quickly, but now you're up most of the night. Or maybe you wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep.

Sleep disturbances can be stressful and dangerous.

"Six hours or less (of sleep a night) triples your risk of a car accident," said Marie Hixon, family life education counselor. She offers a nonmedical sleep management workshop through the Airman and Family Readiness Center to help people with different stages of insomnia.

"We need quality sleep," she said.

Identifying the trigger

"How you function today affects how you sleep tonight," she said.

For example, Harvard Medical School reports that caffeine can linger in the body for up to 12 hours, so a midafternoon cup of Joe may keep you up later that night. Ms. Hixon recommends keeping a weekly sleep diary to discover what causes insomnia. Triggers vary for each person.

"You should pay attention to your body and any changes," Ms. Hixon said.

Caffeine is hidden in many foods and medications.

"You can take an Excedrin and not realize you're getting caffeine," Ms. Hixon said.

Many common foods, such as white rice and mashed potatoes, can cause a spike in insulin levels as they break down in the body like sugar.

"Popcorn at night turns straight into sugar, and there's no way of burning it off," she said.

Alcohol may relax the body, but it prevents the body from achieving REM sleep. As a result, the body avoids recuperative sleep, preventing the mind from processing stress.

Many over-the-counter sleeping pills have the same effect, leaving sleepers feeling drowsy the next day.

Certain combinations of medications can cause insomnia. Sufferers should talk to a pharmacist and discuss all medications, including vitamins, over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements, Ms. Hixon said.

Sometimes the solution is taking a medicine earlier in the day as opposed to at night, she said.

Strenuous exercise is good for overall health, but after 5 p.m., it can ruin a good night's sleep, whereas gentle stretching can be relaxing and help the mind and body unwind after a long day, she said.

All exercise releases endorphins.

"Endorphins can counteract stress to help you sleep better," Ms. Hixon said.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that insomnia may be a symptom of a chronic disease. For example, someone with diabetes or a kidney disease may need to urinate throughout the night, which would disturb sleep.

Setting a scene

A television or computer in the bedroom can be toxic for your love life and your sleep schedule. The bedroom is for the three S's: snuggling, sleeping and sex, Ms. Hixon said.

Getting quality sleep is just as important as the quantity of sleep, she said.

If people wake up in the morning with stiff muscles or back or neck pain, their pillows may be to blame. Research what kind of pillow works best for your sleep position and make sure it supports your neck.

"You want your neck and spine to be as level as possible," she said.

A body pillow, one long enough to support your head and rest between your legs, can maximize alignment. "(It) can help you to relax and sleep easier," she said.

Pillows can flatten and get lumpy quickly. Ms. Hixon recommends replacing your pillows annually.

Studies have shown that a room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees is ideal for sleep. For comfort, spouses may need to use separate blankets to maintain their ideal temperature for sleep.

Keeping the space clutter free may help settle your thoughts before bed.

"Your sleep space should be a sanctuary," she said.

Finding a solution

One way to avoid insomnia is to stick to a schedule and not sleep late on the weekends. "You don't need to rely on an alarm clock to wake up when you get enough sleep," said Dr. John Shepard from the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mayo Clinic.

Another tip is to resist naps. But if one is necessary, "naps should be no more than 30 to 45 minutes," Ms. Hixon said.

Many insomnia sufferers get overwhelmed by stress before bed. They can't escape the day's problems and become more anxious.

"Journaling is one of the best tools," Ms. Hixon said. Writing down your thoughts makes stress seem more manageable. Listing your prayers and blessings sends a feeling of peace through the body.

"We have a bed routine for children. Why don't we have one for ourselves?" she said. "Add your routine as an extension of their routine."

Ms. Hixon recommends cutting down on stimulation from television, computers and electronics. Turn off overhead lights and opt for softer lighting at least an hour before bed.

Set a cut-off time for stressful conversations regarding bills, chores or children.

Some insomniacs wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. Ms. Hixon recommends getting out of bed and reading a book. Eating a piece of turkey or cheese may help, too.

"The body will wake up if it's hungry," she said.

A snack an hour before bedtime can prevent this from happening. "Insulin levels change during the night, and a snack at night can keep (blood) sugar level," Mr. Hixon said.

The sleep management workshop offers more information and handouts on how to obtain a great night's sleep. One-on-one sessions also are available.