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AlisonBrill Posted by Alison T. Brill, MPH.

I_InsomniaCountSheepToSleepNeed to catch more zzz’s? Just like eating and breathing, sleep is a necessary function that we may take for granted. And just like responses to eating and breathing, our body tells us when we don’t get enough sleep – we feel drowsy, hungrier, and may be more irritable. In fact, a lack of sleep can alter how our entire body functions. Getting less sleep than we need increases our risks of catching a cold and getting headaches, migraines and other illnesses.

What most of us don’t realize is how lack of sleep influences our emotional state. Sleeplessness makes us less alert, which can interfere with our performance at work and school. Frequent sleeplessness, or sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, can also lead to mental health problems. That’s because sleep helps give the parts of our brains that control emotions and social interactions a rest. When we don’t let our body and mind rest, emotional states become more active, and we have less control over our emotions. We may feel more anxious, irritable, angry, and less able to cope with stress. Not getting enough sleep can even contribute to serious mental health conditions, like depression and schizophrenia.

While everyone’s body is different and requires different amounts of sleep, it’s good to aim for 8 hours per night. But, if you didn’t get enough sleep one night, a brief, 20 minute nap can do wonders for your mind and body.   WomanSleepingAfrAm

The good news is that there are many ways to get more shut-eye. Here are a few:

1. Physical activity. Regular aerobic activity every day, like brisk walking and biking, helps people fall asleep faster, spend more time in deep sleep, and awaken less often during the night.

2. Maintain a regular sleep-and-wake schedule. Set a regular bedtime, and wake up at the same time every day.

3. Spend more time outside during daylight. Spending long days in an office away from natural light can impact your daytime wakefulness and make your brain sleepy. Then bright lights at night – especially from hours spent in front of the TV or computer screen – can suppress your body’s production of melatonin and make it harder to sleep.

4. Reduce Screen Time Before Bed. Stop checking your email or watching TV before bedtime and you’ll sleep better. People who stare at TV, computer, or iPad screens just before going to sleep have lower-quality sleep, even when they get as much sleep as those who shut off these devices at least an hour before bedtime! Light-emitting devices stimulate the brain in a different way than the way the body was intended to move towards sleep (gradually as the sun sets).

5. Relaxation techniques. Meditation, guided imagery (i.e., relaxation and mental visualization to improve mood and/or physical well-being.), deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation (i.e., alternately tensing and releasing muscles) can counter anxiety and racing thoughts. Learn more here.

6. Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine can cause sleep problems up to ten to twelve hours after drinking it! Consider eliminating caffeine after lunch or cutting back your overall intake.

7. Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. Eating too much can keep you up. Some foods can help, though. Milk contains tryptophan, which is a sleep-promoting substance. Other foods that may help promote sleep include tuna, halibut, pumpkin, artichokes, avocados, almonds, eggs, bok choy, peaches, walnuts, apricots, oats, asparagus, potatoes, buckwheat, and bananas.

8. Talk to your doctor. If you’ve tried all or most of these tips and still toss and turn most nights, it’s a good idea to talk with your physician. You might have a sleep disorder, like insomnia and/or sleep apnea. The sooner you find out what’s wrong, the sooner you can work on fixing it. If you suspect something is wrong, check it out right away.

What helps you get more shut-eye? Post your ideas here!

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