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7 ways to get a better night’s sleep

Sleep seems pretty straightforward: You get into bed, close your eyes, then wake up to a startling alarm clock. However, there are several things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. Walter James, M.D., a Piedmont sleep medicine physician, sets the record straight on seven sleep myths and facts.

1. Lack of sleep affects your emotions as well as your physical well-being: TRUE

Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep each night, though the number can vary based on age and individual circumstances. One thing is for sure: Not getting enough sleep can significantly impact your mental state.

“People can get sleepy, but most people get irritable,” says Dr. James. “Lack of sleep also impacts cognitive function, thought processes, intellectual judgment and emotions, and you may be more likely to fly off the handle. Long term, sleep deprivation can lead to cardiovascular disease and an increased morbidity risk.”

He advises his patients to think of getting adequate sleep like paying a bill – there can be serious consequences if sleep debt isn’t “paid.”

“Every night, your brain gives you a bill. If you don’t pay the bill, it charges interest and penalties,” he explains. “Your brain tells you when to go to sleep. If you don’t pay the bill, it will cut off your power, such as while you’re driving. Sleep deprivation can be very dangerous.”

2. Avoid using digital devices before bed for better sleep: TRUE

There is a reason experts recommend ditching digital devices, like your smartphone, television or computer, before bedtime.

“Bright lights signal to your brain that the sun is up and it’s time to be awake,” says Dr. James. “They block melatonin secretion, which is what helps you fall asleep. In the last 30 minutes before bedtime, you should avoid watching television, using your computer and other bright lights.”

3. Naps should be limited to 20 minutes: FALSE

“Napping is wonderful for people who don’t have trouble sleeping at night,” he says. “For people who have difficulty sleeping at night, napping can cause them to have even more trouble.”

If you choose to take a nap, experiment to find the right amount of sleep for your body.

“Some experience ‘sleep drunkenness,’ or deep sleep after 20 minutes,” says Dr. James. “Others sleep for an hour and feel wonderful.”

If you struggle with falling and staying asleep, napping may worsen the problem.

4. You shouldn’t eat right before you go to bed: FALSE

“This is very individual,” he says. “Some people do better with a small snack at bedtime. Snacks don’t necessarily cause indigestion, but some people may have a predisposition to indigestion.”

If you experience sleep-disrupting indigestion after eating close to bedtime, try having your snack earlier in the evening.

5. Stress can keep you up at night: TRUE

Stress may cause you to have trouble staying asleep, not necessarily falling asleep.

“It’s more common to wake up up at 3 or 4 a.m., not knowing what woke you up,” he says. “It could be intrusive thoughts about stress.”

6. Exercise can help you sleep better: TRUE

“Most people don’t get enough exercise,” says Dr. James. “For people with difficulty sleeping, adding in aerobic exercise earlier in the day can make a big difference.”

Just avoid exercising less than three hours before bed so you aren’t too stimulated to fall asleep.

7. Alcohol can help you sleep: FALSE

While it’s obvious that caffeine can cause sleep issues, many people don’t realize alcohol can disrupt sleep as well.

“Alcohol itself makes people fall asleep, but tends to wake them up in middle of the night,” he says.

The bottom line for better sleep?

Dr. James has simple advice: “You’re getting enough sleep when you are able to function properly during the day.”

He advises to, “Listen to your brain. If it is telling you it needs sleep, you shouldn’t ignore it. Go to sleep.”

If you find yourself sleepy during the day, despite an adequate amount of sleep, talk to your doctor. For more information, visit Piedmont Sleep Services.

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