This winter we’re already seeing a lot of sickness going around. One key factor in staying well is getting plenty of sleep. Research shows people who don’t are four times more likely to catch a cold than people exposed to the same virus, but who sleep more. Still, getting enough sleep is often easier said than done.
Scientific evidence shows that how much we sleep directly relates to our immune system function. Getting plenty of ZZZs helps repair just about every system within our bodies, according to Aric A. Prather, PhD, who runs one of the world’s most successful sleep clinics and is the author of The Sleep Prescription: 7 Days to Unlocking Your Best Rest.
The Right Amount
“When people get the sleep they need they’re more productive, they’re more creative, they are better partners, they’re better parents,” Dr. Prather told CBN News, “They’re more empathetic, and their health is much better off, both mental as well as physical.”
Most adults need about eight hours a night, but that can vary, especially as people get into their senior years.
“It’s a little less clear as we get older, because as people age they often get less sleep,” Prather said, “It’s not clear if it’s about sleep need or just part of the aging process.”
In fact, Dr. Prather warns against becoming fixated on getting eight hours a night, which can actually cause anxiety and ironically lead to sleep deprivation.
“This is where insomnia can rear its ugly head, tied to a number you think you need to meet, and if you don’t something bad’s going to happen to you,” Prather said, adding, “It’s really about how you’re feeling during the day. I mean are you sleepy during the day? Do you feel restored? It’s likely people are in this seven to nine range, but when we get less than five hours that is certainly a risk factor for lots of negative health outcomes.”
The Biggest Sleep Barrier
Anxiety often creates a barrier to sleep. People who struggle with this should consider preparing to bedtime a full two hours before light out. That means moving from work, news, and electronics to something more calming, familiar and pleasant.
“Oftentimes people treat themselves like their computers, that you can flip the ‘off’ switch and go to sleep, and that’s just not how the body works.”
Prather recommends monitoring the content of pre-bedtime activities more than the activity itself. For example, while reading is often soothing, don’t choose an exciting book that you can’t put down and revs up your mind. Make sure you choose something relaxing. Likewise if you choose to watch something, steer clear of a thrilling, engaging program that stimulates your mind. Instead opt for something like sit-com reruns.
“People do well when they watch things they’ve already seen before,” Prather said, “Things they find enjoyable and humorous, but they don’t need to know what happens, because they know. They’ve seen it.”
One way to lessen worrying in bed is by setting aside time during the day to make a list of your problems and then writing down the first step towards a solution.
Number One Rule
Prather said the most important tip he gives to people suffering from insomnia is to wake up at the same time each morning, even on weekends. This is a useful tool to gain control over when the body naturally gets sleepy, also known as circadian rhythm.
“One of the things that happens with insomnia, is that people try to adjust their wake time based on how their night was,” Prather explained, “So if they had a bad night of sleep, they’ll sleep-in an extra two hours. But what that does is it throws the whole system off. It actually puts you in jet lag without any of the benefits of traveling.”
Prather said we only fall asleep when the feeling of tiredness “washes over us,” something we can’t control. However, we can control when we wake up. That’s important because waking up at the same time each day will eventually cue our body’s sense of tiredness to wash over us at the same time each night. He adds that the process might end up costing us at least one nights of poor sleep, but that’s ok, because our bodies can bounce back from just a few nights of bad sleep. It’s the pattern of poor sleep that creates health problems.
Break the Pattern of “Conditioned Arousal”
If you often toss and turn in the middle of the night, try getting out of bed and moving to a different location, like the couch. That can help your brain avoid associating anxiety with your bed, something called conditioned arousal.
“You have your anxiousness, and your bed,” Prather said. “You need to break those apart and wait until you get sleepy again.”
Prather said our brains associate being in bed with the emotions we feel when we are in bed, so it’s important our brains don’t associate the bed with anxiety.
“So often in my clinic I have people say, ‘I was feeling really sleepy, then I got in my bed and my brain woke up.’ That is just great evidence of a conditioned arousal, and the only way to fix that is to kind of break that cycle, and repair the relationship of sleepiness with the bed.”
Prather said when you get out of bed in the middle of the night, don’t turn on all the lights, or do anything active. You want to go back to those relaxing things that are known to bring on that sleepiness for you. And when you feel sleepy again you go back to your bed.
Exercise during the day tends to help us sleep well, so does a dark room that’s a cool 65 degrees.
On the other hand, caffeine can get in the way of a restful night’s sleep, as can alcohol, which can suppress important dreaming, or REM sleep.
“The other thing alcohol does, is it’s relaxing, it hits on those receptors in our brain that make us feel relaxed,” Prather said, “But it wears off. And when it wears off, your brain notices. And that also leads to more awakening.”
Sleep aids, like melatonin, and sleep medications can also lead to long-term sleep issues.
“Even if many of them are not physiologically addicting, they become almost immediately psychologically addicting. We start to wonder, ‘Can we sleep without these?’ And so it’s a slippery slope to go down,” Prather said.