In 2002, the National Sleep Foundation (Washington, D.C.) released the results of their “Sleep in America” poll of 1,010 randomly selected adults. They asked each person how many of hours they slept, how often they experienced sleep problems, if they took medications to help them sleep, and so forth.
The results showed that 63% of women and 54% of men reported problems falling or staying asleep, or of still feeling sleepy in the morning, at least a few nights a week. It’s a common complaint, so what can we do to help?
Dr. Orfeu Marcello Buxton, a neuroscientist and sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School, recently answered a series of questions about sleep problems. Here are some of the highlights.
How much sleep is normal?
Traditional advice has been to get eight hours a night, But actually, there is a wide range of “normal” or duration of “needed sleep”. For most adults, seven to nine hours is a good range, but some people function well on less, and a few need more than 9 hours to be physiologically rested. Don’t try to match an arbitrary number. Listen to your body.
How to know how much sleep you need?
You can try this simple experiment. First, for a couple weeks, perhaps starting on vacation, allow yourself to sleep as much as you want (only use your alarm as a “backup”), so you will correct any current sleep deficit. Then try to go to bed at about the same time each night, and set your alarm to wake up at a certain time (estimate the amount of sleep you need), and see how you do. Can you keep to that schedule of “x” hours of sleep a night, generally wake without an alarm, and wake up refreshed? Adjust up or down your sleep time until you find your ideal sleep duration.
How long does it take to fix a sleeping problem?
It depends on the cause of your insomnia, which could be any combination of physical, psychological, and situational issues (what is happening in your life currently). Many sleep problems are “acute”, meaning lasting up to a few weeks, but more significant sleep issues, “chronic” insomnia, lasts over a month and for this problem you definitely want to see a doctor to determine if there is some underlying physical problem (such as a hormone issue, drug side effect, or unrecognized nighttime acid reflux).
But even if there is no underlying physical issue as a cause of insomnia, “fixing” your insomnia takes some time. It’s like going to the gym when you are out of shape…it takes time to get into good condition. So don’t get discouraged.
What is the most important factor to get good sleep?
You need to make adequate sleep a high priority in your life. Besides television, today—much different than even 10 years ago—most of us have all sorts of digital devices and social networks that take up our time. These distractions have cut into the sleep time for many of us, but it’s important to recognize that when you have good sleep, all aspects of your life will flow smoother. Your relationships, job, physical health, exercise capabilities, and your true passions will be expressed much better if you are not sleep deprived.
In our next post we continue with some hints from Dr. Buxton’s interview, including naps, segmented sleep, and alcohol.
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