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When Counting Sheep Just Doesn’t Work

Jun 30, 2011 10:09AM ● By Sharon M. Weinstein, RN

Americans are experiencing a dramatic increase in sleep disturbances, and quality sleep is absolutely essential for physical and emotional well-being. Deep sleep, without waking during the night, is vital to the body’s repair and restoration functions, immune system support and coping with stress. Many barriers to a refreshing slumber can be managed with a few simple tweaks in the status quo, once they are recognized for what they are.

Some bedrooms sport the ubiquitous television and DVD player, along with telephones, alarm clocks, sound systems and computers. To escape the dark, people often choose to sleep with nightlights on or to fall asleep to the lullaby of a flickering TV screen. The chamber we designate for slumber can also become a catchall of our overabundant stuff, squirreled away from the public areas of our homes. The more papers, books, magazines or clothing we accumulate there, the more distracting our bedrooms become and the poorer the air quality also becomes as a result of dust and material outgassing.

Working late into the night is also a prescription for sleep difficulties, because the intensity of concentration activates the sympathetic nervous system. Eating or operating a computer late, arguing with a spouse or kids, worrying about the next day’s challenges or generally feeling dissatisfied with life all are powerful contributors to a lack of sleep and daily drowsiness.

Can you remember the last time you awakened refreshed, full of energy and ready to go? How about the special feeling and aroma of a warm bath, clean pajamas and sheets with a relaxing bedtime story, a cup of hot chocolate or warm milk and graham crackers? These memories are likely to go together; why have we abandoned the practices that have served us well since childhood?

How can we avoid the behaviors and conditions that might reduce the quality of sleep? Here are some simple tips to help to enrich our sleeping hours.

Quiet Your Room – Ban the TV, stereo, computer and other energy emitters from your bedroom, or at least keep them on a power strip that you can turn off when you go to bed. This will minimize the energy output while you sleep. Plus, these devices all emit man-made electromagnetic radiation (EMG) that is proving to be disruptive to the human body’s own energy system—sometimes seriously so. De-clutter your bedroom to create a feeling of peace and harmony.

Slow Down Your Body – Don’t eat within two hours of sleeping. Your organs need to restore themselves while you sleep instead of trying to digest food. Caffeinated beverages consumed past late afternoon can become a factor, too. Do some deep-breathing exercises before going to bed. Once in bed, de-clutter your mind. If you concentrate too much on falling asleep, you won’t. The ideal room temperature for sleeping is 68 degrees or cooler.

Optimize Your Sleep – The firmness and quality of your mattress, proper body alignment and a room temperature of 68 degrees or less are all important variables in providing quality sleep. Look for a mattress that provides uniform support from head to toe; avoid gaps at the waist. Mattresses can be too firm; pay close attention to uncomfortable pressure on the shoulders, hips, and lower back. Because gravity presses your body against the springs in these areas, the springs push back, creating pressure points, which can restrict blood flow. Special pads are available with a textured or raised surface to provide extra softness without sacrificing support.

When mattress shopping, give each option a good trial run before you buy. Lie down on a mattress for a minimum of five to 10 minutes to get an idea of its comfort level. If you cannot find a comfortable position, you probably are testing the wrong mattress. Does the bed provide enough room for both you and your sleeping partner to stretch and roll over? The ideal mattress will minimize the transfer of movement from one sleeper to the other. Choices should always be made with both partners present and in agreement.

Sleep disturbances are preventable and should be a thing of the past. A little planning and common sense will yield good night’s sleep and leave the sheep to their shepherds.

Sharon Weinstein is adjunct clinical professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Nursing and a member of the professional advisory board of Kaplan University. A fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and the American College of Wellness, her research interests address global health initiatives, the effect of environment on workplace wellness and transformational leadership. Contact her at [email protected].