Tired of tossing and turning? We've discovered the secrets to blissful slumber.
In addition to food, water and air, sleep is the one thing we truly can't live without. But experts say more and more women are falling short on shut-eye, and staring at the ceiling all night isn't just frustrating — it can also be life-threatening.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the 40 million Americans who now suffer from sleep disorders are at higher risk for a slew of serious health issues. Here, what's behind the insomnia epidemic, plus fast-acting solutions for getting quality sleep.
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There are roughly 90 official sleep disorders, the three most common being insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder in which people stop breathing during sleep, said Philip Westbrook, M.D., former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
New research has shed light on why sleep problems are skyrocketing. As with many health issues, stress is to blame.
"Thanks to the economy, there's been a big increase in stress, especially in women," said Alan Lankford, PhD, president and CEO of the Sleep Disorders Center of Georgia. "And stress can have a huge impact on falling and staying asleep." When you're mentally keyed up at night, your body pumps out the stress hormone cortisol, which acts like an adrenaline shot that prevents snoozing.
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Also contributing to sleepless nights is a genuinely modern double threat: overactive minds and underactive bodies. Thanks to our coffee culture, people tend to suck down jolts of energy well into the afternoon. "Any kind of caffeine, even the small amounts in hot chocolate and candy bars, can impair your sleep if ingested after 2 p.m.," said James Maas, Ph.D., coauthor of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep But Are Too Tired to Ask.
Artificial blue light from a television or computer is another powerful mental stimulant that blocks production of the sleep hormone melatonin. So fiddling with your iPad or watching Jimmy Fallon within an hour of bedtime signals your brain to stay alert — and awake. This might not be such a big deal if we got off our butts more often. "Women evolved to be physically active from morning to night," said Westbrook.
"But today's desk-bound woman, even one who regularly hits the gym, still doesn't get the exercise her body was built for, and ample exercise is crucial for good sleep."
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A wake-up call for your health
A solid third of your life should be spent in slumber, and not just so you can recover from those happy hours gone wild. Sleep is critical for overall health, said Maas, "and people are starting to realize it's a necessity, not a luxury." As you snooze, your body repairs errant cells, builds bone and muscle, consolidates memories and stores up energy for the days, weeks and years ahead. Sleep is so important, in fact, that some doctors consider how much you get to be a vital sign, on par with body temperature and blood pressure, said Lankford.
When you're spent, your healthy habits tend to disappear. Fatigue makes the body crave a quick hit of energy — otherwise known as a high-calorie carb-fest. (Ever hit a fast-food drive-through after a rough night?) Going to the gym, a smarter pick-me- up, can seem about as doable as taking a trip to Mars, which is why nearly 50 percent of women report skipping exercise when they're beat, according to the NSF.
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Habitually skimping on shut-eye can also lead to chronic health problems or worsen preexisting ailments. "Sleep deprivation is cumulative," said Lankford. "If someone needs eight hours a night and gets only six every night for a week, by Friday she will be functioning on sleep debt."
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Long term, that can spell malfunctioning hormones that pave the way for increased risks of depression, heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, type 2 diabetes and breast and colorectal cancers. (Breast cancer, for example, has been linked to high levels of estrogen and low levels of melatonin; production of both of these hormones is affected when you're sleep deprived.)
Hitting the bottle
Tossing and turning night after night can make a person desperate enough to storm her doc's office. But instead of searching for the root causes of insomnia, many physicians simply whip out their prescription pads.
"Until recently, many doctors were not trained in sleep treatment in med school," said Maas. "Of the 90 or so sleep disorders, most physicians can name around four. Many hand over pills because they don't know how else to solve the problem." To wit, a whopping 60 million sleep prescriptions were filled in 2009, according to research firm IMS Health.
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All this pill popping has ushered in a new set of problems. For one thing, some sleep drugs are addictive, especially older ones such as benzodiazepines. Even the new class of nonbenzos can be habit forming, says sleep doctor Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Medical Center's Sleep-Wake Disorders Center in New York City.
"Though people are not hooked on them physiologically, they can develop a psychological dependence and think they'll never sleep if they don't take a pill," she said. Rare but scary side effects include things like memory loss and sleepwalking, sleep driving or sleep sex. Plus, said Westbrook, no studies show what extended use of these drugs does to your body.
Tricks To Sleep Better
"The bottom line is that prescription sleeping pills are a short-term solution," said Maas. Simply put, drugs may be a godsend for temporary insomnia, but continuous use could be dangerous.
"Taking a pill won't get to the underlying issue," said Westbrook. Most frightening of all, "insomnia can be a symptom of depression, and depressed patients who take sleeping pills have an increased risk of suicide." Likewise, sleep apnea, when treated with Rx sleep meds, can turn fatal.
A safer and more effective cure for sleep problems lies in improving what doctors call sleep hygiene, a combination of natural snooze-inducing practices. Clean up your slumber routine with these tricks:
1. Stick to a regular schedule.
"Routine is so important," said Maas. "You have one biological clock — not one for the workweek and one for the weekend. You need to synchronize it and go to sleep around the same time every day." Changing up your snooze schedule confuses your brain's sleep center and promotes restless nights.
2. Keep things cool.
When you nod off, your core body temperature drops by about a degree and a half, said Lankford. Encourage the process by setting your bedroom thermostat to around 68°F. If you still feel hot at night, you could be smothering yourself under a comforter that's too warm, so switch to a lighter one.
Another trick: Take a hot bath before bed. As your body cools, it transitions more easily into sleep mode once you lie down.
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3. Don't be afraid of the dark.
Artificial light messes with your internal clock and acts as a stimulant, inhibiting the flow of melatonin. "An hour before bed, turn off your iPad or computer, and don't text or watch TV," said Harris. And by all means, stop watching the clock! Not only do digital versions give off a melatonin-disrupting glow, but watching 20 minutes tick by can lead to more hours of sleepless anxiety.
4. Exercise earlier.
Working out soothes insomnia-fueling stress and eventually lowers your body's built-in thermostat, a necessary presleep step, explained Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Missouri. Just finish off your cardio at least four hours before bed — any later and your body temp will still be too high, keeping you awake.
5. Try some pillow talk.
If adopting the sleep-hygiene guidelines above doesn't leave you well rested, you may want to look into cognitive behavioral therapy, in which you learn to challenge, then change, your negative sleep-related thoughts, said Harris. Acupuncture, massage, meditation or simply taking a series of slow, deep breaths before bed may also help soothe you into sleep. If your insomnia sticks around for more than three weeks, seek out a doctor who is trained in sleep medicine.
This story was originally published in March 2011.