Michael Howell, M.D. is an assistant professor with the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota. Howell is a sleep and breathing expert and is certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine and by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
It’s that time of year again where millions of people vow to do things a little bit differently than the year before in the ultimate pursuit of personal improvement.
No matter what your New Year’s resolution is this time around, do yourself a favor and follow my advice on sleep.
Sleep is a significant building block for any personal goal you have this year. So whether you plan to exercise more, quit smoking or start a new hobby, make sure sleep is part of your equation for success in 2013.
1. Reacquaint yourself with the morning sun. Your circadian rhythm evolved more than 4 billion years ago and is reset daily with morning bright light exposure. There is a special layer of cells in your retina (the ganglion layer) that only serves to reset your 24-hour clock. The absence of morning light leads to a progressive delay resulting in more trouble falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning.
2. Discover your ideal sleep time. I am often asked, “How much sleep do I need?” That’s the wrong question to ask. Seven hours from midnight to 7 a.m. may be just as physiologically refreshing as 8 hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
For one week, attempt to fall asleep whenever you get sleepy at night and sleep until you wake up naturally (no family, pet, or alarm clock waking you up). You will have a rebound period of extra sleep that usually lasts for a few days but by the end of the week you will have a good idea of what your natural sleep time is.
Once you have your ideal sleep time, try to achieve it as frequently as possible. Or, if that is not feasible (for example: your body wants 2 a.m.-10 a.m. but you have to get up for class or work at 6 a.m.) then attempt to advance the clock by bright light in the morning (preferably sunlight, barring that then a 10,000 lux light box) and low dose 1 mg melatonin in the evening (3-4 hours prior to bedtime).
3. Never fight the body. It’s a fight you can’t win. Surrender by becoming a good napper. Napping is an acquired skill. You may notice that if you sleep too long you may feel groggy for a while after waking. This is related to mistiming the length of your nap. We normally sleep in 90 minute cycles so try to get either less than 20 minutes (not enough time to get too deep) or about 90 minutes so that you have finished a sleep cycle.
4. Watch out for the Jimmy Legs. Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is the condition that shall not be named. It is pervasive, common and disabling; however, most patients recoil against the diagnosis as they feel the name trivializes their suffering. Treatment exists.
5. Never drive while sleepy. More motor vehicle accidents are due to fatigue than to alcohol. Even if you are not falling asleep, you are impaired. Your family and fellow drivers will appreciate you.
For more insights from Dr. Howell, please see his recent CNN article on the dangers of driving while sleepy.