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November 19, 2015

Try These Tricks for Better Sleep (and a Healthier Heart!)

by Amanda MacMillan

Better Sleep

Aah, sleep. You know you need it so you won’t snap at your spouse and kids – and so you won’t get drowsy behind the wheel. But here’s another reason to take snoozing seriously: A recent study suggested that routinely losing out on sleep can increase the risk of heart disease.

Why sleep matters
The average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep every 24 hours, says Saul Rothenberg, PhD, a behavioral sleep psychologist at North Shore-LIJ’s Sleep Disorders Center. That’s because your body’s organ systems are designed to function in time with your sleep-wake cycles -- and when one gets out of whack, so does the other.

“If you get too little sleep, your immune system won’t work as well and you’ll be more vulnerable to getting colds and flu,” he says. Sleep also affects memory and learning, and even the hormones that control your appetite. So sleep deprivation won’t just make you tired and grumpy; it can also make it harder to remember things, and can even contribute to weight gain.

On top of all that, researchers in South Korea recently found that people who typically slept five or fewer hours per night had 50 percent more calcium in their coronary arteries (an early sign of heart disease) than those who slept seven hours. People who reported poor sleep quality also had more calcified arteries than those who considered their sleep to be good quality.

So now you have another reason to get to bed on time -- but what if you still can’t fall asleep? Rothenberg says plenty of his patients have good intentions when it comes to their sleep schedules, but they’re making two big mistakes that can leave them tossing and turning. To avoid those common sleep snafus and train your body for better shuteye:

Don’t lay awake for more than (about) 20 minutes
“We have many years of research that suggest that a reasonable time to fall asleep, or fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, is about 20 minutes,” says Rothenberg. “After that, it can become very frustrating and contributes to the problem, rather than help solve it.”

If you’re still awake after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something quiet and calming -- like reading a book or listening to music -- until you feel sleepy enough to lie back down. Avoid television or computer screens, since bright light can signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up.

But don’t look at the clock, either
“When I tell people the 20 minute rule, I tell them roughly 20 minutes,” says Rothenberg. “That’s because the second most common mistake people make is that they watch the clock to see how long it’s taking them to fall asleep, which often makes them anxious and upset.”

He recommends setting your alarm and then facing your clock away from you (or turning your phone face down) so you can’t obsessively peek at the time. “If you’re lying awake, or you wake up in the middle of the night, you don’t need to know what time it is,” he says. “The only thing you need to know is whether your alarm went off yet. If it didn’t, you can go back to sleep.”

A simple solution
The easiest way to avoid these problems in the first place, Rothenberg says, is to follow a regular schedule. Most importantly, that means getting up at the same time every day.

This programs your brain to get sleepy at bedtime, he explains. You may feel tired when your alarm goes off in the morning, but avoid the urge to sleep in. (Yes, even on the weekends!)

If you’ve tried these tips and you still have trouble falling asleep at night, or you feel groggy and sleep-deprived during the day, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you pinpoint the cause of your problem, and can suggest healthy, effective ways to improve your slumber -- and your overall health, while you’re at it.