Pillow Talk

Tips to improve the quality of your zzzz’s

By Alison Stanton

If you spend more time tossing and turning during the night instead of sleeping like the proverbial rock, you are not alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35 percent of U.S. adults are not getting the recommended seven hours of sleep each night. 

Carlos Alvarado-Valdes, M.D., a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist in Sun City West, mostly sees older adults who on average are more sleep-deprived than their younger counterparts.  

“For a lot of older adults, changes in lifestyle can affect their sleep schedule,” he says, adding that retirement offers a classic example.

After years of being on a regular sleep schedule for work, new retirees may yearn to be a night owl and sleep in late.

“But when the brain does not get the cues it once did like a regular alarm in the morning and people are no longer on a regular schedule, sleep problems often occur.”

Awaken to a good night’s sleep

Fortunately, Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says, there are many ways to improve your shut-eye. 

“People must develop a regular sleep schedule and go to bed on the weekends at the same time as weekdays,” he says.

Creating an environment conducive to good sleep also helps. Dr. Alvarado-Valdes suggests turning off the smartphone, TV and similar electronics a few hours before bedtime.

“The bright lights on the screens stimulate the brain, and sometimes the content that we see can be irritating or frustrating instead of relaxing,” he says.

A cool, quiet and dark bedroom and regular exercise also promote a good night’s sleep.  

“People can do things like take a warm shower, dim the lights, play relaxing music, do some gentle stretching and meditate,” Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says.

Don’t snooze? You lose. 

Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says if a person wakes up sleepy and sluggish every morning and whacks the snooze button several times, it may be time to seek a doctor’s counsel.

“Also, when people do not have the energy to accomplish or enjoy the day’s activities, thrive at work, learn at school or interact with friends, they should report this to their doctor.”

In certain cases, sleep aids may be appropriate to use, but these should be used with the guidance of a physician. For example, melatonin is an over-the-counter supplement, may be useful, he says, adding that it can help control our daily sleep-wake cycles. However, he cautions that melatonin supplements can negatively interact with many different medications so advises to check with your doctor before taking the sleep-inducing aid.

“Sleep-aid medications such as Ambien are common and helpful but may also cause amnesia, where people do things during the night and do not remember doing them,” Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says.

How much sleep do we really need?

While eight hours has traditionally been considered the gold standard of sleep, Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says this is no longer the case.

“A recent study of sleep health found that the optimal amount of sleep is seven hours a night, plus or minus one hour.”

As for the notion that older adults do not sleep as much, Dr. Alvarado-Valdes says they may be snoozing more than they realize.

“Some older people will say ‘I only sleep five hours a night now,’ but they don’t count that two-hour nap in the afternoon, so they are still getting about seven hours a day.”

More serious sleep disorders

Major sleep disorders include insomnia, RLS (restless leg syndrome), sleep apnea and narcolepsy. If you, or someone you know, suffers or suspects they suffer from one of these difficulties, it’s important to receive an evaluation by a health care provider or, if necessary, a provider specializing in sleep medicine. Sleep disorders can increase your risk of health problems.

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