Dear Doctor: I’m having trouble sleeping these days, and so is my wife. We’re both 33 years old, we’ve been working from home and we have two very active young sons. What can we do?
Dear Reader: Even before the novel coronavirus upended our lives, poor sleep and insomnia were already affecting millions of people of all ages in the United States. That’s a problem because adequate good-quality sleep is important to physical and mental health and to emotional well-being. People who regularly get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night are at increased risk of a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory diseases, anxiety and depression. And that’s not even factoring in how lack of sleep affects performance and safety during our waking hours.
It helps to understand that sleep begins at the cellular level. Our bodies respond to the daily 24-hour cycle of light and dark in a number of complex ways. Artificial light disrupts this natural rhythm, as do a host of other factors. These include the blue light from screens, which has been shown to scramble our internal clocks, and substances such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sugar and certain medications. Stress, anxiety and depression, which many of us have in abundance right now, also interfere with sleep. The good news is that there are steps you can take to improve your chances for a good night’s sleep.
Optimize your environment. Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. Window coverings that completely block outside light are a worthwhile investment. Some people swear by a sleep mask. And don’t forget about interior lights, such as clock faces, televisions, and computer, phone and tablet screens. Even those dots of light from chargers and the smoke alarm are better covered up. If noise is a problem, consider ear plugs or a white noise machine. Do what you can to control the temperature. Research shows that people sleep best in a cool room, from 60 to 68 degrees. And we know it’s a challenge, but stop looking at screens a few hours before bedtime. It really makes a difference.
Set a sleep schedule. Be realistic. If you can, match it to your natural preferences for sleeping and waking. Known as chronotypes, these are ingrained sleep-wake cycles that contribute to whether you’re a morning person or a night owl. Include a transitional wind-down time, a personal ritual that signals to your body that the waking day is over. Read a book, do some stretches, give yourself a scalp massage.
Daily exercise can contribute to better sleep. So do meditation and yoga. Many people swear by slow, deep breathing as an effective transition from wakefulness to drowsiness and then sleep. As we mentioned earlier, caffeine and alcohol can interfere with both the quantity and quality of your sleep, so it’s important to stop intake later in the day. Your goal in all of this is consistency, including on weekends. And please be patient -- it can take a few weeks to begin to see results.
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