Dr Dale Peterson, sleep, sleep disorders, insomnia

Sleep: Neglected or Missed Too Often

Sleep: Neglected or Missed Too Often

© 2001 Dr Dale Peterson; © 2006 Wellness Clubs of America.com
This article was originally published in March 2001.  For an update, including information on Dr. Peterson's sleep support product see Sleep Well.
Few things can do more to promote health than a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, most people who believe that they are sleeping well do not give their bodies the amount of rest necessary to promote optimum health.

It is reported that prior to the advent of modern conveniences such as electric lighting, radio, television, and computers individuals slept, on average, nine hours each night. They commonly arose at or shortly before dawn, but they retired shortly after dark.

Today most of us mistakenly believe that six or seven hours of sleep each night is perfectly adequate. In fact, a recent survey revealed that while the average American gets about seven hours of sleep on weeknights and 7.5 hours on weekends, nearly one in three people get six hours or less of sleep during the work week

How much sleep is enough? . The bottom line is that if you are waking up to an alarm clock you are not giving your body the amount of sleep it needs to function properly.

A sleep debt accumulates when rest is cut short. This translates into an increased risk for errors and accidents at home, at work, and on the road. It is not surprising that nearly a quarter of people surveyed admit that they have fallen asleep while driving and half say that they feel sleepy while driving.

Common symptoms of sleep deprivation include tension, stress, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure. Significant sleep deprivation can result in being “asleep on ones feet”, appearing to be awake and functioning but having no awareness or recall of ones activities. Perhaps worst of all, sleep deprivation has been found to result in changes that indicate accelerated aging.

Insomnia is a common problem. One out of every two adults in the United States reports having had difficulty sleeping at some time. Up to a third report having difficulty sleeping at least five times a month, and twelve percent report having difficulty sleeping an average of sixteen times a month.

The problem is not limited to adults. American teen-agers are said to be among the sleepiest people in the world. An erratic routine contributes to this phenomenon. Teen-agers typically arise early for each school day. Social events often keep them up past midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Attempting to go to bed early on Sunday evening to be ready for school Monday morning becomes nearly impossible. It is equivalent to flying coast to coast every few days and trying to deal with the accompanying jet lag.

A variety of sleep problems exist. They include trouble falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, feeling drowsy in the morning, having a hard time falling back to sleep after waking or waking up too early in the morning.

The causes of insomnia are diverse. They range from the presence of physical or emotional challenges or unsettled spiritual issues to disruptions in the body’s regular biorhythms. Some are obvious and easily corrected, others are elusive and seem to defy correction. There are, however, many factors that can be controlled and which can help ensure a restful and restorative sleep.

The body is designed to enter a restful sleep under specific conditions. These include the onset of darkness, the increase in the earth’s magnetic field strength that occurs as solar activity fades at dusk, and the lower temperatures that occur at night. Taking advantage of the body’s natural response to these phenomena can be extremely helpful in establishing a consistent sleep pattern.

In as much as it is possible, light and noise should be extinguished when retiring. This can present a major challenge to individuals who work at night and sleep during the day. An interior room, if available, can facilitate these conditions. As an alternative, an eye cover and earplugs can be utilized. While these may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first their use can promote a more prolonged and sounder sleep pattern.

Devices that generate electrical fields, such as clock radios, should be removed from the head of the bed. This step alone will improve sleep quality in a number of individuals. Others may find that creating a negative magnetic field at the head of the bed using unipolar magnets with the north side facing the body helps induce a restful sleep.

Sometimes the answer to insomnia can be to change the location of the bed. Irregularities in the earth’s electromagnetic field can trigger sleep disorders. If insomnia develops within a few weeks of moving to a new location consider this possibility. If your spouse sleeps soundly but you do not, consider changing sides of the bed. If the difficulty reverses you know that the bed location is a major part of the problem.

Several things may be done to take advantage of the body’s natural tendency to sleep as temperature falls. The first is to turn down the thermostat several degrees at night. This simple step can significantly enhance sleep quality. 68 degrees Fahrenheit appears to be ideal for sleep. Temperatures above 72 degrees are likely to significantly disrupt sleep.

A second way to take advantage of dropping temperature as a clue to sleep is to exercise in the late afternoon or early evening. Exercise raises core body temperature – the central body temperature. As the body cools the fall in core temperature signals that it is time to sleep.

A similar result can be achieved by submerging the body in a hot tub of water two hours before bedtime. Interestingly, the difference between extremity temperature and core temperature appears to be more significant than the actual core temperature. This means that wearing socks or mittens to bed can induce a more restful sleep.

A common practice is to make up for poor sleep at night by napping during the day. Unfortunately, this can aggravate the problem. It is generally best not to nap during the day if you are having difficulty sleeping at night.

What we eat and drink makes a difference in how well we are able to sleep. Most people will sleep more restfully if caffeine containing foods and beverages including coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate are avoided during the last half of the day. Alcohol and tobacco can cause profound sleep disturbances and should be eliminated.

Foods can either induce or disrupt sleep. Greasy foods can promote reflux (stomach contents coming back into the esophagus) and should be avoided at the evening meal. Spicy foods can be activating and so should not be eaten late in the day. This is also true of foods high in the amino acid tyramine. These include cheese, sauerkraut, wine, beer, smoked meats & fish, brewer’s yeast & beans.

Tryptophan rich foods, on the other hand, tend to induce sleep. These include turkey, bananas, dates, figs, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, tuna & peanuts. An evening snack containing one or more of these items can often be as effective as taking a sleeping medication.

The value of a specific bedtime ritual should not be underestimated. This is particularly apparent in young children, but it applies to adults as well. The same pattern of activity should be repeated each evening before retiring. The bedtime ritual thus established will tell the body that it is time to slow down and go to sleep. If the nightly pattern is not followed you will quite likely have trouble falling asleep. If an activity has kept you from getting to bed at the usual time you will generally fall asleep more quickly and get a better rest if you spend twenty or thirty minutes following your usual routine than if you forego your usual bedtime activities and attempt to go to sleep immediately.

A number of supplements are helpful in facilitating a healthy sleep pattern. They can be used to address a variety of sleep challenges.

Magnesium in a range of 400 to 800 milligrams can relax the body and induce sleepiness. It is particularly helpful if muscles feel tense when lying down.

Bioflavonoids are the major sources of blue, red and some yellow pigments in plants. Some, the proanthocyanidins, are particularly adept at crossing what is called the blood-brain barrier, the mechanism that keeps many substances from crossing into the central nervous system. While this mechanism is generally beneficial in keeping toxic substances away from the brain it has the disadvantage of preventing antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E from efficiently entering the brain. If these antioxidant nutrients do not reach the brain free radical damage can occur, something that can cause a disrupted sleep pattern. Pycnogenol (pine bark extract) and grape seed extract are very effective in facilitating the transport of antioxidant vitamins across the blood-brain barrier, reversing the effects of oxidative damage and resulting in improved sleep.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland at the base of the brain. It is responsible for regulating our body clock. It is not in itself a good sleep inducer, but it is very beneficial in re-setting the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

Melatonin is particularly helpful in these specific situations. It is able to help people quickly adjust to different time zones when traveling. This is most noticeable when traveling across multiple time zones internationally. Melatonin can help shift workers adapt to schedule changes much more quickly. It is also beneficial in helping set an earlier time for sleep in individuals who find that they cannot get to sleep until one or two in the morning yet are required to get up for school or work at six or seven.

Melatonin is commonly sold as a 3-milligram tablet. This can produce levels much higher than those normally experienced by the body. I advocate starting with 1˝ milligram or less. It should be taken 30 to 60 minutes before the desired time for sleep onset. If taken at a different time it will induce “jet lag.”

A number of herbs have sedative effects and can be helpful in producing sleep. Valerian, hops, skullcap and chamomile are among the most commonly used, either alone or in combination.

Sleep disturbances can herald serious problems such as sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. If insomnia persists despite institution of the measures discussed evaluation by a specialist in sleep disorders is indicated.

Good night and sweet dreams!
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