Calling All InsomniacsJan 31, 2020
When I was 24 years old, I spent a four -week period where I averaged 3.5 hours of sleep a night. Why? I was being a dutiful medical student. I would work a 12- hour shift in the hospital and then run to the ICU for my night call shifts. We were assigned little “call” rooms-where we could sleep, but really, there was never time to rest in the ICU at a tertiary care hospital. At 6 AM, I would down a large coffee and return back to the hospital every morning to start my day, hoping to make sense of what I was learning. This isn’t just my story, it’s the story of millions of people who train or work in similar settings. The insomniac doctors I worked with deemed sleep as weak and a 36- hour work shift as a glorious endeavor. This sort of attitude prevailed for several more years of training that stretched well into residency and finally, my working days. You can imagine why I thought of sleep as a nuisance and that perhaps I was wasting my time sleeping. I could not have been more wrong.
Turns out my well- intentioned teachers and mentors either chose to ignore or didn’t understand the enormous health consequences of sleep deprivation. Sleep researchers like Matthew Walker tell us that we have a non-negotiable biological need for 7-8 hours of sleep a night to keep our bodies and brains healthy. Getting less than 7 hours of sleep leads to a battered immune system and has been linked to increased development in breast, colon and prostate cancers. We’re more likely to have heart attacks and even our genetic code can be eroded by insomnia. Our reproductive system suffers too and can lead to issues such as infertility. What about the brain of an insomniac? We all know how sluggish we feel when we don’t sleep well, but did you know that insomnia can get in the way of learning, making new memories and storing those memories? In other words, getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night has been linked with higher incidence of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s dementia.
So, other than panic, what is someone like me supposed to do? What if you are also an insomniac or just simply ignored sleep? We have hope. We can begin to restore more balance by making sleep a priority. Our bodies and minds have an incredible ability to heal when properly nurtured. It’s never too late to sleep your way to a healthier, more vibrant life.
Here are my biggest tips for getting the best night’s sleep.
1. Avoid caffeine after 2pm. That means no coffee, tea or sometimes even chocolate can have caffeine.
2. Avoid late or heavy dinners. A full stomach hinders our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
3. Regularity. Try your absolute best to keep your bedtime close to 10pm and your wake time close to 6am. Yes, even on the weekends. This is the single most important take away point and perhaps the hardest to implement.
4. Take a hot shower or bath just before bedtime. Our core body temperature needs to drop 2-3 degrees F in order to initiate and sustain good sleep. So we can slip into slumber easier when our body temperatures drop after a hot shower.
5. Keep the bedroom cool and dark. Research says(and don’t tell my husband this) that the ideal room temperature is 65 degrees!
6. Avoid electronics for at least 2 hours before bedtime. Yes, that means the TV, your iPad, your phone and the laptop. The blue light emitted from these devices sends mixed signals to our brains and suppresses melatonin release, leading to insomnia.
7. Here’s the easiest tip: Eat 2 pistachios before bedtime. Melatonin occurs naturally in pistachios. Two pistachios have the equivalent amount of melatonin as a supplement.
Turns out I’m not the only insomniac around. As our world becomes more industrialized and we are able to work around the clock, millions of people suffer from the catastrophic impact of sleep loss. As for me? I’ve been following these 7 tips for two years and I can vouch that they really do work. I’ve just had to make sleep a big priority in my life and try to be a good example for my teenage (insomniac) kids.
Sleep is not optional. It is not laziness. It is an essential biological need that we should talk about more often.
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