To Your Health
February, 2008 (Vol. 02, Issue 02)
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Snooze or Lose

A Good Night's Sleep in 10 Easy Steps

By Kathryn Feather

If you are one of the 40 million people in the U.S. suffering from sleep problems each year, you might have a sleep disorder. You don't have to suffer through a lifetime of restlessness - most disorders can be treated with a few simple lifestyle adjustments.

We've all had the urge to hit the snooze button just one more time before dragging ourselves out of bed to meet the day's demands. We've all seen the drug commercials on television promising a restful night's sleep if we would just take one tiny pill. For many, a good night's sleep is a luxury that doesn't come often enough. Some sleep problems are a normal part of life, while others can cause debilitating symptoms and make life miserable. While drugs might be the only option for some, there are some natural alternative treatments that just might get you back on track to a restful night's sleep without all the side effects drugs can cause.

Many of the things we deal with in life can cause disturbances in our sleep patterns. Working long hours, job stress, a sick child, taking care of an ailing parent, traffic noise, lights, extreme temperatures, and caffeine or alcohol can all disrupt our nocturnal clocks. Many of us don't even realize the importance of a good night's sleep and how it affects different aspects of our lives.

A woman lying awake in bed. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Our sleep requirements change throughout our lives and can vary from person to person. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep each night, while teenagers and school-aged children need at least 9 hours a night. Newborns can sleep between 16 and 18 hours a day, and children in preschool sleep between 10 and 12 hours a day. But, it's not just the amount of sleep you get that's important - it's the quality of your sleep as well.

When our sleep patterns are interrupted, it can affect our ability to think clearly, react quickly to certain situations and create memories. The pathways the brain uses to help us learn and remember are still active when we sleep. Cutting back on sleep for even one hour can make it difficult to focus the next day and slows our response time. Insufficient sleep also can make us more irritable, which can affect our work and personal relationships. Studies have shown that people who chronically lack sleep also are more likely to become depressed.

Disruptions to a Good Night's Sleep

Sleep disorders such as insomnia, snoring and sleep apnea are growing problems in this country. Insomnia probably is the most common sleep disorder with symptoms including trouble falling asleep, trouble getting back to sleep or waking up too early. Most of us have trouble falling asleep now and then and that's a normal part of life. Insomnia becomes chronic when it lasts for a few weeks or more almost every night.

Snoring spouses have caused marital discord for decades. Snoring is caused by vibrating in the throat. Oftentimes, snoring can be dealt with by simply changing your sleep habits. Sleeping on your side or back can reduce or eliminate snoring, as can losing weight, cutting down on smoking or alcohol consumption, or buying the convenient over-the-counter nasal strips that open nasal passages to aid in breathing.

Sleep apnea is a very common, yet dangerous, sleep disorder. Sleep apnea occurs when your breathing stops repeatedly during the night. It can stop for as little as 10 seconds or as long as a minute and you wake up struggling to breathe. It becomes dangerous when you can't wake yourself up to breathe. People with sleep apnea sometimes need surgery to make their airway larger, but the most common treatment is a device like a mask that pushes air through the airway. Those with sleep apnea also tend to be overweight so losing that extra weight always is a good option, as is avoiding alcohol, tobacco and sleeping pills.

Many people don't realize what an important part sleep plays in our overall health. A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Studies also have found that the less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight, develop diabetes and prefer eating foods high in carbohydrates and calories. Our body also rejuvenates itself during our deep sleep cycles. Growth hormone helps fuel growth in children and helps build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues in children and adults. We also can fight off various infections when we have a good night's sleep, which helps protect us from getting sick and speed recovery when we are sick.