You’re Getting Sleepy…
The power of some good zzzzs
Illustration by Gayle Kabaker
A few months back, I finally purchased a Fitbit tracking device so that I could better oversee my exercise and heart rate. While the number of steps I took in a day was interesting, tracking my sleep was far more compelling.
“Sleep is one of the major contributors to overall health,” says Dr. Mark Pettus, director of Medical Education and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield. “The four pillars are fitness, nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Sleep is one of the four tires on our car of life.”
And David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, goes even further by saying that there’s nothing more influential than the previous night’s sleep as far as affecting a person’s sense of wellbeing, energy, and good mood. Writes Randall: “Whether you realize it or not, how you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live.”
But sleep isn’t just about a better mood and having more energy. Lack of sleep is a serious health hazard, and arguably a growing epidemic. According to Dr. Joseph Bass, who runs his sleep research out of Northwestern University, when sleep gets below just seven hours a night there is an escalation in diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even death. Lack of sleep increases our risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and drug addiction, while other studies have linked lack of sleep to a significant increased risk of cancer. Plus, sleeping too little will also expand our already expanding waistlines. In a study conducted by Dr. David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, otherwise healthy adults restricted to four hours a night of sleep started gaining almost two pounds on average after just five days of such a regimen. Complicating the problem is the fact that the more weight people put on, the more likely they’ll suffer from sleep apnea, further compromising sleep quality and overall health.
All to say that if there is one single thing one can do to improve his or her health, it’s getting more zzzs. But that’s easier said than done. Focusing too much on our sleep can make things worse. “Sleep,” says Dr. Jack Ringler, medical director of Berkshire Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center, “doesn’t like to be scrutinized.” The more we think about sleep, says Ringler, the harder it may become to actually get it. Ringler, who sees hundreds of sleep-deprived patients each year here in the Berkshires, starts by asking patients to check one of two boxes—box one being “life issues” keeping them up at night or box two being their concern about sleep itself. A surprising number of people check the second box, says Ringler. “The act of attempting sleep becomes an arousing stimulus. People can’t think their way out of insomnia,” just as a recreational golfer can’t fix his golf swing when thinking too much about all the things that need correcting. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.
So, what to do? Before consulting a sleep expert, there’s a list of sleep-hygiene do’s and don’ts to try at home first. 1) Sleep in a pitch-dark room—this includes blocking out even subtle light from any outside source, a TV (even when turned off), and any devices plugged into the wall. “A dark room,” says Pettus, “should be so dark that if you hold your hand out in front of your face you would have trouble seeing your fingers.” 2) Avoid tablets or screens of all types for at least an hour before bedtime. 3) Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol. 4) Sleep in a cooler room, preferably as cool as 62 to 64 degrees. 5) Be consistent with your sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time whenever possible. 6) Get plenty of sunshine and exercise during the earlier parts of the day while avoiding vigorous exercise late at night. Other less common solutions include wearing amber-colored sunglasses inside the house after sundown so as to avoid the blue end of the light spectrum late in the day, and f.lux, a free app that automatically filters out any blue light coming off a computer or smart phone screen after sundown.
But Dr. Mary O’Malley, psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, would also add that good old-fashioned patience shouldn’t be underestimated either. Just like losing ten pounds doesn’t happen overnight, sleeping soundly doesn’t always happen right away either. “You always start with good sleep hygiene,” says O’Malley, “but the frustrating part is that people will adjust one thing and try it for two nights. When it doesn’t work, they’ll move on to the next thing. It can take weeks to unlearn a pattern. It’s consistency, a whole different attitude that people have to be coached into.”
The good news is that such patience will certainly be rewarded. “Insomnia is a long-term project and an adventure that can be viewed as reconditioning,” says Ringler. “It can affirm the capacity of a 40-, 50-, 60- and 70-year-old body to get better. When I say cherish and forgive your sleep—it’s there. You just have to believe.”
This is the second of a three-part series on the impact and relationship of fitness, sleep, and nutrition.