Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you are far from alone. An NBC Today Show/Zogby International poll found that half of Americans say they don’t get enough sleep. About 25 percent say they get less than six hours.

Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep to perform optimally. If you sleep less than that, scientists tell us, you are more likely to succumb to illness and die young.

But there’s another reason to get your sleep. Studies show that people who sleep well outperform their sleep-deprived colleagues in almost every aspect of life, including goal achievement, income, and net worth.

I try to get seven hours a night. But at least once a week I get less than that. People say you can’t “catch up” on lost sleep. But I find that if I’ve gone several days on only five or six hours of sleep, an eight-hour night does me a lot of good.

When I want to get up early (which is almost every day) and I’m going to bed late (which happens about once a week) I take a mild, prescription sleeping pill to help me fall asleep right away. I don’t feel good about turning to pharmaceuticals, but I’ve been told that the pill I use is mild and non-addictive. We’ll see. (According to research company IMS Health, I’m one of 42 million Americans who bought prescription sleeping pills last year. That number is up by 60 percent since 2000.)

As you age, it gets more difficult to get uninterrupted sleep – which may be why so many older people are cranky and forgetful. You can spend seven or eight hours in bed, but instead of one continuous rest you get a series of 90-minute naps. That’s not good.

An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey explains that sleep deprivation can lead to decreases in vigilance, reaction time, memory, psychomotor coordination, information processing, and decision-making. While this is dangerous – and often fatal – when driving, it also has a harmful effect on your everyday activities.

So how can you ensure that you get enough rest – without pharmaceuticals? Here are some ideas from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF):

1. Avoid stimulants – like caffeine and nicotine – before bed. As an ETR reader, you are already (or know you should be) avoiding nicotine and limiting the caffeine you get in coffee and tea. But chocolate and many soft drinks also have enough caffeine to keep people with sleeping problems awake. The NSF recommends laying off all these things six to eight hours prior to bedtime.

2. Don’t eat anything for two to three hours before you head off to bed. Heavy meals can cause discomfort and spicy meals can cause heartburn – both of which lead to a restless night.

3. Limit your alcohol intake prior to bedtime. Although it initially makes you feel sleepy, the NSF explains that alcohol has a “rebound” effect that can cause troubled, fitful sleep.

4. Exercise regularly. Here at ETR, we can’t speak highly enough about the many benefits of regular exercise. And here’s one more: It can help you fall fast asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly.

5. Avoid stressful activities before bed. Paying bills, catching up on work, solving problems, or watching television or a movie can cause excitement or anxiety that will prevent you from sleeping.

6. Make your sleep area for sleeping. Period. If you have a computer or desk in your bedroom, you risk associating the room with work rather than sleep. Remove all anxiety-producing or distracting items from your room so it becomes a sanctuary for sleep and sex … and nothing else.

7. Sleep comfortably. If your bed has begun to sag in the middle, it’s probably time to purchase a new one. If you and your partner have different sleep styles, try a bed that has adjustable levels of support. If your pillows and bed linens have seen better days, upgrade to goose down and high-thread-count sheets. (I covered this in great detail in Message #1081

8. Create an inviting sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. Look into eyeshades or blackout curtains to help eliminate extra light. And if your partner snores or your window faces a busy street, you may want to purchase earplugs or a “white noise” machine to drown out the sound.

9. Keep your sleep schedule steady – even on weekends. According to the NSF, our circadian rhythms regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Making sure that you wake up each morning at the same time strengthens the circadian function and helps you get to sleep at night. So resist the urge to “sleep in” on weekends and holidays. (Use that extra time to advance some of your most important goals.)

10. Relax. Performing a soothing routine before you hop into bed can release you from the stresses of the day, ensuring that you will fall asleep easily and sleep deeply. Try a warm bath, reading from a favorite book of poetry, or listening to relaxing music.

If you still have trouble sleeping, the NSF recommends that you keep a sleep diary. Recording your activities before bedtime and describing your night’s rest the next day can help you pinpoint patterns or practices that might be affecting your sleep. Check out the NSF website for information on how to start a sleep diary.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]