The amount of sleep that you get is vital to your overall health. We all know our cell phones don’t work without recharging and our bodies are no different. Short term lack of sleep can lead to irritability, difficulty focusing and headaches. Long term, it can even lead to more serious problems like hypertension, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Our need for sleep and our sleep patterns change as we age. Babies on average will sleep between 16 to 18 hours a day. School age children and teenagers need about nine hours of sleep on average. For most adults, 7-8 hours of sleep is the norm. It is also true that after age 60 our sleep cycle can become much lighter and shorter, which is why we often screen for sleep problems in older patients.

There is a myth that you can build up and store sleep by sleeping longer on weekends. This is not the case. Sleeping longer will not make you recover faster, nor does it give you the ability to stay up longer. If you compare it to adding gas to your car, once you fill the tank, you can keep pouring gas into the tank, but your car is not going to get any benefit out of that. It’s more important and beneficial to keep a consistent sleep schedule.

Most people think falling asleep is like flipping a light switch off. In actuality, there are at least six different parts of our brain that play a role in releasing chemicals and communicating with each other that regulate falling asleep, different sleep cycles, and of course waking up. It’s a nifty little system but it has to be maintained. We are all creatures of habit, and as most of us know, bad habits are much easier than good habits. Good habits include:

  • Exercising
  • Setting a regular bedtime and wake up time
  • Cutting out or cutting back on stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine (particularly after noon)
  • Turning off the tv and electrical devices at least an hour before bed to allow your brain to prepare for sleep
  • Avoiding using your bedroom to wind down at night to teach your brain when it’s time for bed, it’s time for bed

Most experts recommend trying to focus on good sleep habits for at least two weeks. If at that time you’re not sleeping better, or at any point that lack of sleep is affecting your daytime activities, talk to a health care specialist who can help you uncover any other medical conditions which may be causing your trouble.

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