Want better sleep? Try changing your behavior
As more and more studies confirm what sleep specialists have been saying for years, more people are learning the vital role sleep plays in a person’s overall health.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is putting that knowledge into action.
While complaints about the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and achieve restful sleep vary from person to person, Dr. Kirk Watkins, medical director for Intermountain St. George Regional Sleep Center, said many of the sleep issues are related to behavior — behavior that if people want, they can change.
Speaking about a relatively new field of study known as circadian medicine, Dr. Watkins said there is a clock of sorts inside every cell in the human body, all of which are synchronized by a master clock in the brain.
“Everything in the body is based around the function of that master clock in our brain,” Dr. Watkins said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of things we can do to mess up that clock — the most important of which is exposure to light.”
But not just any light. Specifically, exposure to the kind of light emitted from electronic devices like phones and tablets, especially just before bed.
“There is not one person in this country who will experience health benefits from using their electronic devices in bed,” Dr. Watkins said. “Everyone who does that will be damaged by it; the light from the device will damage their health, even if it’s in ‘night’ mode.”
The problem, Dr. Watkins explained, is the light throws off that internal clock, which means the clock in every cell the body is now wrong.
“We wonder why we have these big increases in chronic disease, but most of the chronic diseases we deal with in this country are lifestyle diseases,” Dr. Watkins said. “Almost all are negatively affected by our bad behavior with regard to sleep.”
The good news? Well, exposure to electronic devices in bed is a choice. And so is the amount of time people are allowing themselves to sleep.
“The biggest cause of insufficient sleep in this country is intentional,” Dr. Watkins said. “Our lives are too cluttered. Believe me, I’m guilty of it too. But we think we have to keep working until midnight, and we have to get up early to finish working, and we don’t have time to take a break. It’s not normal that we are getting less sleep as a society, but the choices we have made lead to getting less sleep.”
While Dr. Watkins said there are cases that will require medication to assist with sleep issues like insomnia and others, more often he said the issues are related to behaviors that become self-perpetuating problems. And a pill is not always the answer to that.
“It takes dedication and time, which we’re all short on,” Dr. Watkins said. “However, there are a lot of great books out there with tips from behavioral sleep specialists suggesting things like meditation, sleep restriction, stimulus control, progressive relaxation techniques and more.”
Some other basic behavioral changes Dr. Watkins suggests are regular daytime exercise — especially in the morning — as well as eating dinner earlier so there is more time between eating and sleep. He also said a person should avoid consuming alcohol for three to four hours before sleep to give the body time to metabolizes the alcohol or it will disrupt quality sleep.
Dr. Watkins said it is important to note the body’s sleep requirements will change as a person ages, but there are some factors that stay the same.
“Our need for REM sleep to make up about 20 percent of our total sleep time is a constant throughout life,” Dr. Watkins said. “Sometimes people get worried when they see on their sleep monitoring device that they’re only getting 20 percent of REM sleep in a night, but that is very normal.”
It is also normal for people to need a nap, even though society in industrialized countries does not recognize this important practice.
“It’s the way we are hard-wired,” Dr. Watkins said. “Our brains are not programmed to get all of our sleep at night. You’d be better off getting an hour nap in the afternoon.”
But finding an employer who is on board with that can be a little difficult.
This Live Wellcolumn represents collaboration between healthcare professionals from the medical staffs of our not-for-profit Intermountain Health hospitals and The Spectrum & Daily News.
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Live Well: Try changing your behavior to get better sleep