#112 10 Things That Great Sleepers Do

July 10th, 2015 by

10 Things That Great Sleepers Do

“Its 4 am and I can’t sleep!”

Fully, 70 million Americans can’t even get at least 6 hours of sleep each night.  Are you one of these 70 million people?

Sleep is critical for optimal heart and brain health.  As a cardiologist who has struggled with sleep for a significant part of my life, I have made it a focus to study the habits of people who enjoy great sleep.  Based on my research, in this article I will share the 10 things that great sleepers do each night.

How Much Sleep Do You Get

If you are like the typical American, you cut your sleep short by 42 minutes each night during the weekday.  This weekday sleep deprivation is generally caused by setting an alarm clock in the morning.  Studies show that “catch up” sleep on the weekend cannot undo the inflammation and decreased cognitive function that happens from sleep deprivation.

What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

We all know that we don’t feel very well after a bad night of sleep.  The problem is that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Indeed, studies show that just one week of poor sleep, defined as sleeping an average of 5.7 hours a night, results in 711 changes to our genes.  These genetic changes may even increase our susceptibility to cancer.  Another study showed that just one night of bad sleep caused brain damage.

Sleep and the Heart

Our hearts need adequate sleep to function properly.  Even just losing one hour of sleep, like what happens each year when we go on Daylight Savings Time, results in an increased risk of a heart attack for one week.  Sleep deprivation also doubles the risk of atrial fibrillation.

Interestingly, studies show that both short and long sleepers have up to a 30% increased risk of premature death. This increased risk of premature death seems to be driven primarily by the cardiac effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep and Dementia

Sleep deprivation results in “shrinking” or atrophy of the brain, especially in the memory center.  It also impairs cognitive function.  Is it any wonder then that chronic sleep deprivation can cause dementia?

10 Things Great Sleepers Do

My study of the habits of the 37% of Americans who report that their sleep needs are being met was very helpful for me when I struggled with insomnia.  I have always been fascinated by deconstructing what works for certain groups of people who are able to avoid chronic medical conditions.  Below are the 10 things that great sleepers do.

1. Exercise Each Day

In my experience, daily exercise is one of the most critical components to great sleep at night.  I have found that on days where I am unable to exercise I am often unable to sleep at night.

Based on the results of 1,000 people participating in the 2013 Sleep in America Poll, exercisers are 48% more likely to enjoy a great night of sleep.  Interestingly, non-exercisers are also approximately 3 times more likely to report fatigue, taking sleeping pills, or snoring at night.

2. Have a Set Bedtime

Studies show that the number one reason why people report that their sleep needs are not being met is due to staying up late for evening activities.  Just having a set bedtime resulted in an average of 1 additional hour of sleep each night.

For many people it is hard to go to bed on time as often this is the only chance you get to have a minute to yourself.  Based on what I have seen with my patients, setting an alarm clock at night to signal that it is time to go to bed is much healthier than setting the morning alarm clock to wake you up too early.

3. Don’t Hit the Snooze Button

Contrary to popular belief, getting a few “extra minutes” of sleep by hitting the snooze button does not help.  In fact, abruptly wakening from an alarm clock can actually make you more tired in the morning due to a condition known as sleep inertia.

If you need an alarm clock in the morning then you likely are sleep deprived.  Our bodies function best when we are able to awake naturally, on our own, without the need of an alarm clock.

4. Avoid Blue Light at Night

Blue light, like that which is emitted from televisions and electronic devices, at night activates our brains and suppresses natural melatonin production.  As a result, watching TV or using your phone or computer at night often makes it difficult to fall asleep.

According to the 2014 Sleep in America Poll of 1,103 adults, having an electronic device in the bedroom doubles your chances of a bad night of sleep.  In addition, having an electronic device in the bedroom results in 1 less hour of sleep.

5. Don’t Sit During the Day

Great sleepers don’t sit very long during the day.  On average, those who sleep well at night, sit 1 hour and 10 minutes less than those who struggle with sleep.  They also watch TV 1 hour and 7 minutes less than poor sleepers.

As I track my steps each day, I have found that if I take less than 10,000 steps it is difficult to sleep at night.  For me, I tend to sleep best on the days when I get 20,000 or more steps.

6. Have Caffeine and Alcohol Rules

Caffeine and alcohol are two major sleep disrupters.  Great sleepers tend to have personal rules in place as to how much and what time of the day they take in their caffeine or alcohol.

For example, according to the 2014 Sleep in America Poll, having a caffeine curfew, or time of the day when they don’t eat or drink anything with caffeine, resulted in an average of 42 extra minutes of sleep at night.  For most people, the half-life, or time it takes for half of the caffeine to be metabolized by your body, is 4-6 hours.  Thus, to rid your body of 75% of your morning coffee will require 8-10 hours (2 half-lives).

Some people, like me, are genetically programmed to be slow caffeine metabolizers.  You can learn if you are also a caffeine slow metabolizer by the 23andMe DNA test for $99.  As a result, I can only eat dark chocolate in the morning hours or I won’t be able to sleep at night.

7. Manage Stress

According to a 2009 Canadian study of 464 adults, stress or anxiety was one of the primary causes of insomnia.  It is nearly impossible to sleep at night when your mind is active and adrenalin levels are still high.

I have found that the simple act of just writing down your anxieties prior to going to bed can work magic for your sleep.  Somehow, the act of putting your concerns down on paper frees up your mind to relax.  Others have found that listening to meditation programs or music helps to quiet their minds at night.

8. Work Reasonable Hours

In a study of 22,389 adults, long work hours were shown to be a major cause of insomnia.  Work, for many people, can be very stressful.  Our bodies and minds need a chance to relax and disengage from work.

If you are working too many hours you may find it difficult to sleep at night.  I know that when I have a long day in the operating room it can be hard to sleep at night unless I unwind with exercise and time with my family.

9. Have the Right Bedroom Environment

Your bedroom is arguably the most important room in your house for optimal health.  Great sleepers have purposefully created an ideal sleeping environment.

Based on the 2012 Sleep in America Poll of 1,087 adults, the following were reported as key aspects to great sleep at night:

– Cool room temperature (79%)

– Fresh air, free of allergens (75%)

– Dark room (73%)

– Quiet room (72%)

– Clean bedroom (66%)

If you are struggling with sleep, perhaps now is the time to make sure that your bedroom has these important features.

10. Reverse or Treat Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition where people stop breathing at night.  Typically, the sleeping partner can easily make this diagnosis as people suffering from sleep apnea tend to snore like a train, stop breathing, and then gasp for air.

During these periods when people stop breathing at night their oxygen levels drop dangerously low causing  high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and even sudden cardiac arrest.  For most people, sleep apnea can be reversed by weight loss or by treating it with a CPAP machine at night.

You Can Learn to Enjoy Great Sleep

Chronic insomnia, like most medical problems, is something that can be overcome with a healthy sleep lifestyle.  Based on the research of thousands of people who enjoy great sleep, the more of these 10 habits you can achieve the greater your likelihood of great sleep.

Have you found these 10 sleep habits helpful?  Please share with our community what has helped you to sleep better at night.