I talk a lot about sleep on the show and for good reason: Sleep is incredibly important to your health and has an impact on just about everything you do. Sleeping better can boost your focus, productivity, positive emotions, help lower your weight and blood pressure and can decrease your risk for diseases like heart disease and diabetes. In spite of that, many people aren’t getting enough sleep each night. While sometimes the reason is obvious, other causes of poor sleep may not be as clear. Check out these three easy steps that can help move you towards better sleep and better overall health.
Step 1: Find Out If You Snore
This first step helps you look for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition that has been thought to affect anywhere from one in 20 to one in five people. Why such a huge range? The problem is, most people don’t know they have sleep apnea. That’s because of how the condition works: Structures of the throat block off your airway during sleep, which causes you to stop breathing. This wakes your body up, gasping for air, but you fall back asleep before you even realize you’re awake. In severe cases, this can happen hundreds of times a night. It’s no wonder, then, that people with sleep apnea wake up exhausted even after eight hours of “sleep.” Why is this a problem? Aside from the high blood pressure and other increased risk of diseases like heart disease and stroke, this sleep deprivation makes falling asleep behind the wheel a serious and dangerous possibility.
Watch: Do You Know Your Sleep Type?
Snoring is a very common symptom of sleep apnea because when those floppy tissues in the throat fall onto the airway, they vibrate back and forth to make that snoring noise. Snoring indicates that your airway is crowded and that you might be at risk for sleep apnea. Another key sign is waking up after a long night of sleep without feeling rested. Being obese, being a smoker, or having a thick neck can all also contribute to your risk for sleep apnea. If you’re not sure if you snore, ask your spouse or significant other if they’ve noticed snoring or gasping noises. Friends who might have been around when you’re sleeping can also be a good source of information. The best way to get diagnosed is with an official sleep study, which your doctor will prescribe if they suspect sleep apnea is the cause of your sleep problems.
Step 2: Check the Light In Your Room at Night
If you live in a city, chances are good your room is too bright at night. It’s become harder and harder to find places that are truly dark as the light from stores, billboards and streetlights increasingly pushes its way through our windows. Unfortunately, that light pollution can have serious effects on your circadian rhythms and on your ability to fall asleep at night. A study to be presented at a conference for the American Association of Neurology looks at this very problem. After surveying almost 16,000 people about their sleep, they took satellite images of light in the areas these people lived and compared it to how each person rated their sleep. They found that people living in cities were exposed to light at night that was three to six times brighter than what people in rural areas experienced.
Compared to people in rural areas, people exposed to bright light at night slept less, felt tired more often during the day, and reported being dissatisfied with their sleep at night. They were also more likely to report waking up confused at night.
Your body uses light as a cue to know when it’s time for bed and when it’s time to wake up. If it always looks like dawn in your room, your body doesn’t know whether it’s supposed to be asleep or awake. If you live in a bright area, invest in some blackout curtains or a good eye mask if curtains aren’t possible. This will block out light pollution and help send the right message to your brain about what time it really is.
Step 3: Block Out That Noise
Light’s not the only offender when it comes to sleep problems. Random nighttime noise has been said by some to be as bad sleep apnea if it occurs often enough during the night. Car honking, laughter on the street or a plane flying overhead can all wake you from sleep over the course of the night and leave you feeling tired and unrefreshed in the morning. If you live in an urban area, chances are good noise is waking you up in the middle of the night at least every now and then. Several studies have assessed the impact that noise can have on your sleep and your health. One found that the sound of an airplane can cause sleep issues at volumes as low as 48 decibels. For reference, that’s slightly quieter than a regular conversation. Other studies have found that people living in areas with high levels of noise at night are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
So what can you do about noise? Try these strategies:
- Even out noise level with white noise generators. Putting a fan on or having a water feature running can help block out sudden noises, such as a car going by, that might wake you up.
- Install blackout curtains. Not only do they reduce light, but they also help dampen noise from the outside.
- Turn off the TV. TV shows and commercials are designed to stimulate your brain and wake you up. You can’t get a good night’s sleep if the TV’s on in the background even if you think it helps you fall asleep.
- Get some earplugs. They’re a great solution for those living in particularly noisy areas. Nowadays earplugs come in all forms, levels of softness and degrees of noise reduction. You’re bound to find something out there that will suit your ears no matter how sensitive they are.
If you have sleep issues or struggle with insomnia, better sleep is in reach. Try the three easy steps above and see if your sleep improves. If you’ve tried a few different strategies and still can’t get a good night’s sleep, it’s time to see the doctor. Sleep issues could signal another disease that needs to be addressed. Remember, don’t take your sleep for granted. Getting seven to eight hours a night is one of the best things you can do for your brain and for your body.