Though the consequences of drinking and driving, or texting and driving, are what make the nightly news, each year thousands of drivers fall asleep at the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 100,000 police-reported crashes each year are the result of driver fatigue, whether the driver is totally asleep or “merely” exhausted.
With work schedules for many of us approaching 10, 12 or more hours a day, or perhaps we have two jobs and/or work seven days a week just to pay the bills, and adding in the hours involved in raising our families, statistics are on the rise for sleep deprivation and its byproducts. These include automobile accidents, an increase in illness as we become overextended and run down, and decreased cognitive function and productivity at work and home because, as the saying goes, we can’t keep our eyes open (our brains go into snooze mode long before our eyes give us away). According to the National Sleep Foundation, “… sleep problems and fatigue are among the most common presentations in a primary care setting.”
For some of us, work and family schedules and fewer hours to sleep withstanding, the quality of sleep we get when we finally hit the pillow is not what it should be. Tossing and turning over mounting bills, unrelenting bosses, unfulfilled work at the office, problems with Sarah’s soccer tryouts or Adam’s college application, computer work late into the night or aging parents–any and all of these create an environment that’s not conducive to a good night’s rest.
Long-term effects of sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, high blood pressure, increased stress hormone levels, increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and much more. And while it’s true some adults need less sleep than others, it’s the quality of sleep that we get that determines how healthy and productive—and safe–we are.
As March is National Sleep Awareness Month, the opportunity to take stock of our sleep habits and also take a lesson from national statistics may just be what the doctor ordered to stem the tide of sleep deprivation and its consequences and institute better habits.
So what can you do to help ensure a better night’s sleep?
- First, though there may not be enough hours in a day for work and family, do your best to cut it all off at least two hours prior to bed (three is recommended). That means work-related activities, laundry, cleaning, planning, talking on the phone, etc.
- Do not exercise in the hours before bed as it invigorates heart, brain, and muscles. However undertaken at the right time, exercise can provide for more alert daylight hours and an easier time sleeping as it releases stress and serves as a mood elevator. Mindfully stretching before bed, however, including a gentle yoga practice, can release tension and facilitate sleep.
- Turn off technology, especially the computer, and dim the lights around the house. Ease into a pre-sleep mode by having something warm and soothing to drink (no caffeine or alcohol, of course). A warm bath works wonders for muscle relaxation, which can lull you into a peaceful state. For some, listening to soft music can induce a restful feeling and for others, reading does the trick. Save the thrillers for daylight, and lessen the stimulation on the brain by reading from a regular book (remember them?!) as opposed to technology with a bright screen.
- Restrict the bedroom to light reading (not work-related documents) and sleeping. Resist the temptation to put in a TV which, by its nature, and by virtue of the ubiquitous remote, can challenge the brain rather than quieting it. Better to limit choices and let the mind settle down.
- Clean, cool, fresh air is integral to an optimal night’s sleep. Given seasonal extremes, we may not always have the option of opening a window, relegated instead to heat or air conditioning, but do your best to see that the room is not too hot or stuffy nor so cold it keeps you awake just trying to stay warm.