Employee & Community Health

Good night's sleep - good for your health

3/13/2017 by Dr. Meghna Mansukhani

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You toss and turn. Your partner snores. The dog takes up too much of the bed. Events of the day plague your dreams. You wake up groggy, dull and hoping that a cup of coffee will jumpstart your system. A poor night's sleep may get your day off to a sluggish start, but a pattern of poor sleep can affect your health. 

Why is sleep so important? We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, restoring our body and mind so we can function well during the day. 

How much sleep we get is just as important as the quality. While the quantity of sleep needed to feel rested and function well during the day varies from person to person, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends a minimum of seven hours for adults. Less than five hours of sleep per night has been associated with higher mortality, cancer risks and adverse effects on heart health. 

What does a typical night's sleep look like from a scientific standpoint? Sleep is made up of alternating cycles of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes. As the night progresses, the amount of REM increases - this is when we experience vivid dreaming - accounting for about 20-25% of our total sleep. 

Experts don't know exactly why REM sleep is important, but they theorize that during REM we're learning or unlearning information we gathered during the day. Think of it as your brain creating new work files and deleting unnecessary ones. 

So how do we improve the quality of our sleep? Start by making sleep a priority, creating an environment and a schedule that's conducive to sleep. Try these techniques if you have difficulties with your sleep: 

  • Try to keep the same schedule every day, particularly waking up at the same time, even on weekends and on vacation. If you have trouble falling asleep, delay bedtime until you feel drowsy. 
  • Try not to spend more than eight hours per day in bed. 
  • Make sure where you sleep is dark, quiet and not too hot or too cold. Wear clothing that's comfortable. 
  • Work regular physical activity into your day, but refrain from exercising four to six hours before bedtime. 
  • Limit caffeine to two servings per day and drink them before noon. 
  • Avoid electronics, screens or anything mentally stimulating, like an exciting movie or book, before bedtime. 
  • Save your bed and bedroom for sleeping and sexual activity.
  • Limit napping to 30 minutes a day, ideally before early afternoon. 

On those nights when you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, don't watch the clock. If you're not feeling sleepy or can't get back to sleep, after about 15 to 20 minutes, get up and do something boring, like reading a dull book. 

If you've fallen into a pattern of poor sleep, one of these conditions may be the culprit: 

  • Insomnia. Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS). Legs feeling fidgety or twitchy
  • Snoring/sleep apnea. Stopping breathing, then waking suddenly gasping and choking

These conditions or just feeling like you're not getting sufficient sleep may indicate the need for a sleep consultation and treatment. As we learn more about sleep disorders, we're devising new treatments such as insomnia medications, implantable devices for sleep apnea and different medications for RLS. 

We all function better and lead healthier lives when we're well-rested. If you're concerned about the quality of your sleep, contact your care team. 

Dr. Meghna Mansukhani is a consultant at Mayo Clinic's Center for Sleep Medicine. She also is the Integrated Community Specialist in Sleep Medicine for Employee and Community Health (ECH). Prior to joining ECH she served as medical director for Willmar Sleep Services and ACMC Sleep Laboratory in Minnesota.