Getting a good night's sleep is key to mental and physical well-being

Monday, February 4, 2013

Just because you can function on little to no sleep doesn't mean you should. We get it -- you're busy, and sometimes sleep takes the backseat to work, family time and other commitments. But doctors say it's just as important to schedule some shut-eye as it is your next business meeting.

"Every body system requires sleep for rejuvenation," says Lisa Baker, primary care and forensic nursing director at Beacon Health Center. "Sleep can affect not just overall, general health, but also the ability to cope with day-to-day stresses."

Sleep and your mind

Dr. Brad Bittle, pulmonologist and sleep specialist at Saint Francis Medical Center, says a lack of sleep decreases work performance by making you less alert and less able to concentrate, make decisions and deal with problem situations. If you nod off behind the wheel or while working at a machine, a lack of sleep can quickly become dangerous for yourself and others.

Your relationships with co-workers may also be at stake.

"You might be a little irritable and less focused," says Kathy Waggoner, a therapist at Beacon Health. "You might have an issue with being very sensitive to others. In other words, you might make quick assumptions, take things the wrong way or snap at people."

When your relationships with co-workers suffer, you have more stress. When you have more stress, your work performance falters. When you worry about those two factors, you'll probably lose even more sleep at night -- see where we're going with this?

"It's a vicious cycle. It keeps cycling downward," says Waggoner.

Sleep and your body

Next in the cycle is your physical health. When you don't get enough sleep, you're predisposed to stress-related illnesses, which then affect your immune system function and make you prone to other infections, says Bittle. Underlying medical conditions like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be worsened if you're not getting enough sleep, says Baker, while depression and weight gain may also creep up on you.

How to get better sleep

"Oftentimes it's a matter of making time to get adequate sleep, not underestimating the amount of sleep you need," says Bittle. He says most adults need 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 hours of sleep each night, but the number varies from person to person.

"Some are fine with six hours, while others truly need eight or even nine hours per night," says Baker.

Bittle, Baker and Waggoner all agree that a restful night begins with a soothing bedtime routine. You probably already do this for your children -- take a bath, brush their teeth, read a bedtime story -- but make sure to do the same for yourself, says Baker. Take a bath, drink some herbal tea and read a book or magazine. Whatever you do, stay away from your electronic gadgets -- the light intensity from the TV and computer affect the secretion of hormones that help you fall asleep, Bittle explains.

Before bed, make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, comfortable and at an appropriate temperature, says Bittle. And, reserve your bedroom for "bedroom activities" only, says Baker -- no watching TV or balancing your checkbook allowed.

"If you're in bed and you can't fall asleep, the worst thing to do is lay in bed fight to fall asleep," says Bittle. "Staying in the bedroom and struggling to sleep is often counterproductive." If you can't fall sleep after 20 or 30 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity until you feel ready to fall asleep again, he advises.

If you're lying awake with worry, Waggoner suggests keeping a pen and paper next to the bed.

"Take the worry off your brain by writing it down," she says. "Get it on paper and off the brain so you don't have to try and remember it."

If sleep is still a problem

Everyone has a bad night now and then, but if sleep has become a persistent problem, it's a good idea to see your doctor about it, says Bittle, especially if your bed partner comments that you snore, gasp or choke during sleep. If it's your mind keeping you awake at night, you may want to consider talking with a therapist, says Waggoner.


Words to remember

"Women do a very good job of taking care of everyone else and putting ourselves last. It's important to develop a mindset that taking care of ourselves is just as important as taking care of those around us. We'll actually do a better job caring for our families and loved ones if we're also taking care of ourselves." -- Lisa Baker, primary care and forensic nursing director at Beacon Health Center