“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” – Ernest Hemingway
This is National Sleep Awareness Week. What does it mean to get “a good night’s sleep” or “beauty rest”? Have you heard “slept like a log or rock”? Sleep is vital to living, along with the biggies of food and shelter. Yet more than 85 sleep disorders are recognized by the American Sleep Association, affecting more than 70 million Americans. Up to one-third of Americans have symptoms of insomnia. Although the field and research of sleep health is relatively new, much is already known about sleep:
- We need different amounts of sleep at different ages; in general, you need less as you age
- Diet and exercise directly affect sleep
- Drowsiness and falling asleep at the wheel causes more than 100,000 car crashes every year
- The lack of enough sleep increases your risk of depression and anxiety disorders
- The lack of enough sleep increases your risk of cancer, heart disease, and obesity
The power of sleep is underestimated. Think of the infant child in the back of your car sleeping soundly despite semi-trailers roaring by, curves in the road, and headlights shining in his little face. Or your child whose body is draped halfway off the bed, soundly asleep, when you check on her in the middle of the night. This is what is termed, “a good night’s sleep” – the kind of sleep that is not disrupted by nightmares or pain, and is so deep it takes a few minutes to crawl back to consciousness when waking. I remember wanting sleep and loving sleep when I worked the night shift as a nurse, but hating the sleep I was getting then. It was tough to work at night with mostly peaceful slumbering surrounding me. I didn’t need to see studies to know that sleep can be like healing magic. I’m fortunate that I don’t need to work nights anymore.
I have learned to treat sleep as my friend. Have you ever been told “get some sleep; everything will look different in the morning” or “sleep on it.”? Lack of sleep can make us irritable, irrational and less able to process complex problems. After sleep, we are mentally refreshed and better able to cope with stress. We can remember things we’ve learned, or figure out puzzles we are trying to solve. This is when “everything looks different” in the morning.
Sleep is the one time that requires us to do nothing (!) while our bodies repair themselves and restore a natural balance of hormones. During sleep, hormones are released that encourage tissue growth, help balance appetite, and reduce stress. Our blood pressure lowers, giving our hearts a break. People who sleep 7-9 hours every night have been shown to experience fewer signs of depression than those who slept less (or more) hours, have fewer colds, respond better to immunizations, and eat an average of 300 fewer calories a day.
What happens when your relationship with sleep is not friendly? Or you don’t give sleep the respect it deserves? Answer: An undesirable you. A snoring partner, anxiety or health issues may keep you awake. It happens. The National Sleep Foundation gives great advice on Healthy Sleep Tips to get great sleep. You’ve heard many of these before – they are similar to tips for staying physically and mentally healthy – but they are important. There are many ways to improve your sleep. Find ways that work for you. Changing my job helped me tremendously. Professional help for sleep issues is also available and trouble sleeping can be a symptom of physical or mental health problems that need attention.
So in celebration of Sleep Awareness Week, sleep! And become so good at sleep that you can do it with your eyes closed.
by Dara Ojo
Director of Nursing, Children’s Services