Sleep Safely and Soundly in 3 Steps

Sleep Safely and Soundly in 3 Steps

Improve your sleep—and your health—with these expert tips.

Recent headlines (Common sleeping pills muffle your sleeping brain's ‘intruder alert') made us think of the saying, “You snooze, you lose.” But while that may be true when you’re behind the wheel or sleep-walking from sleeping pills, it couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the importance of good sleep for good health.

This is a serious issue because 35 percent of US adults aren’t getting the needed seven hours of shuteye nightly, according to a 2016 CDC report. (South Dakotans were most likely to get enough sleep—72 percent do! Hawaiians get the least; only 56 percent report seven hours nightly.) And 48 percent of Americans have occasional insomnia, while 33 percent say it’s a nightly or near-nightly torment.

No wonder Americans spent $230 million on over-the-counter sleep meds—accounting for 85 percent of sleep aids used. The other 15 percent are prescription meds such as Ambien and Lunesta. A CDC report found that about 4 percent of US adults (almost 10 million people) used prescription sleep aids in the past month.

Eyes wide open
A combination of two factors is making a good night’s sleep evermore rare, and making sleep itself risky business! Fortunately, you can change that—but first, those two:

1. A dysfunctional stress response is the number one sleep destroyer, making it hard to fall asleep and triggering disturbing dreams. Then, lack of sleep boosts your levels of stress hormones and you’re in a vicious cycle.

An American Psychological Association 2017 survey, called “Stress in America,” found money, work and the future of the nation (in terms of healthcare, the economy, crime, climate change and terrorism) rank as the top three stressors. And a Gallup poll found 44 percent of adults say they frequently feel stressed during the day; 35 percent say they sometimes do.

2. Chronic pain is a close second: 50 million Americans deal with persistent pain and around 20 million have “pain severe enough that it frequently limits life or work activities.” That’s why so many folks depend on OTC and prescription pain meds to control pain and sleeping pills to help them snooze.

In fact, the number of Americans taking both pain-killing opioids (like Percocet or OxyContin) and benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Xanax—commonly prescribed for insomnia as well as pain and anxiety) increased by 250 percent over a 15-year period. And there was an 850 percent increase in patients taking other benzodiazepines and so-called Z-drugs (Ambien and Sonata) on the same nights, according to a new study published in the journal Sleep. That’s millions of people, say the researchers, who are at serious risk for addiction/dependency, as well as breathing problems and early death.

Another risk: Benzodiazepines may help you sleep, but, say researchers from Japan who tested this in mice, they also make it so you’d sleep through an intruder, fire or earthquake! No wonder these drugs are called hypnotics.

For better ZZZs . . .

1. Move. No matter what your physical abilities, use your legs for at least 30 minutes a day. And get up and move around every 20 to 30 minutes when sitting. Over time, increase your physical activity to include interval aerobics (5+ days a week) and strength training (2x a week).

2. Meditate. Dr. Mike says: Set aside 12 minutes a day to meditate. Quiet—no cells, no music, no Internet. Sit in a comfortable position with good posture. Breathe in through your nose slowly for 4 seconds and exhale slowly through an open mouth for as long as you can. Build to 8 seconds. Repeat the breathing rhythm while you let your mind drift. Recognize thoughts as they appear and let them go. Say "Om-m-m," and you’ll feel clearer and stronger. To help calm your mind, check out the meditation videos available for streaming on the Sharecare app for iOS and Android.

3. Make the bedroom sleep-ready. No light (except nightlights emitting red wavelengths). No TV or phone. Use earplugs and eyeshades to limit light and sounds, maintain cool temperatures and use warm blankets.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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