MHLbannersmallWhen it comes to sleep, most of us can use a little more

Along with being Stroke Awareness Month and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month, May also shares the spotlight with Better Sleep Month. While the first two causes would seem to be the far more important health issues, the fact is, we're in the midst of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is calling a "sleep loss epidemic" and the results have a significant impact on health and quality of life.

In the interest of full disclosure, it turns out that Better Sleep Month is sponsored by the Better Sleep Council, a non-profit organization that, in turn, is supported by the mattress industry. But regardless of the origin of the group (and when you think about it, a good mattress definitely has a relationship to the quality of sleep), their goal of raising awareness about the benefits of better sleep is worth noting.

SleepBefore looking at some strategies to encourage improved sleeping patterns, it makes sense to check in on why it matters so much. At the very least, not getting
enough sleep is almost sure to leave us irritable and exhausted. But that's just the beginning. Although a few poor sleep nights aren't much of a problem, longer-term sleep deprivation impairs our memory and concentration (affecting the ability, for example, of students to learn classroom material) and negatively affects our judgment putting us at increased risk for injury.

Since inadequate sleep affects a wide range of physiologic functions, it can also lead to an increase in blood pressure and stress hormone production as well as a weakened immune system.

Given the potential down side of sleep deprivation, it's important to approach sleep with some positive strategies. For example:

Before Going to Bed

  • For at least an hour before getting to bed, limit any intense physical or mental activities.
  • Avoid alcohol, chocolate or caffeine close to bed time, as well as large meals.
  • Sometimes we think about things in bed that need to be thought about – but not there. Put aside 10 minutes or so during the evening and let your mind wander through your thoughts and concerns before you go to bed.
  • Make sure you have an optimal sleeping environment – a ventilated room at the appropriate temperature and as dark and quiet as possible.
  • Keep tempting distractions – like TVs and computers/phones/pads out of the bedroom.

Once You're in Bed

  • When you're in a deep sleep your breathing is relatively slow and shallow with a small pause between breathing in and breathing out. Simulate this kind of breathing to help relax.
  • Don't stress about not being able to go to sleep. Tell yourself that the next best thing to sleeping is to just lie there and relax – and then focus on your breathing (see above).
  • It's normal to wake up during the night. Avoid turning on any bright lights and again, focus on breathing and relaxing.
  • Keep a pen and paper by your bed (nothing electronic) and if you can't get a thought out of your mind write it down to think about and deal with the next day. That way you can more easily let it go for the night.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The classic response that we need eight hours sleep isn't far off the mark. Sleep experts recommend that the average adult gets between seven and a half to eight and a half hours of sleep a night. Children and teenagers need closer to nine hours, and anyone engaging in rigorous exercise may need some extra sleep to help the body recover.

In all cases, however, quality also matters. Although around eight hours of sleep may be optimal, six hours of deep and refreshing sleep is more beneficial than eight hours of interrupted sleep.

SleepCelebrating Better Sleep Month

Research conducted by the CDC indicates that most Americans are unsatisfied with the amount of sleep they get – but don't usually take advantage of opportunities to get more. So while we may be in the midst of a "sleep loss epidemic," a considerable part of it is self-inflicted.

Hopefully, this month can serve as a reminder of how vitally important sleep is to our health and wellbeing – and also encourage us to create the best environment for sleep and follow other strategies that will help support a restful night.

As for "celebrating" Better Sleep Month, don't party too hard. In fact, just lie down, close your eyes, focus on your breathing and get a little more sleep.