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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...

Once upon a time, human beings' lives were very much dictated by the natural world. And, like other members of the animal kingdom, we slept in response to the sun's daily cycle. It was a logical option to sleep when the sun went down and to rise at dawn. According to social historians, most people slept about 9.5 hours a night.

In the modern world, we have light bulbs, late-night television and a generous helping of stress to keep us awake. The average adult now sleeps about 7.5 hours a night. For most people, that's barely enough. And the "average" means that some of us are sleeping even less than that. The consequences of this change in sleeping habits can range from the irritating to the disastrous.

You Gotta Have It...

Our tendency to shortchange the sandman most often affects our mental well-being and our ability to tolerate stress. Too little sleep leaves us more likely to snap at co-workers and become irritated over small things. Studies show that our attention spans, short-term memories and decision-making abilities also suffer.

Sleep deprivation can also have more serious consequences. Fatal traffic accidents are most common between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., and up to 600,000 auto accidents a year involve driver drowsiness. Sleeping at the wheel also leads to about a third of all lethal truck accidents.

Night shift workers have the toughest task of all, having to adjust their sleep to a biologically and socially disruptive schedule. Performance errors typically increase between 2 and 4 a.m., regardless of the skill level of the workers. Many catastrophes of the last decades were caused by the human error of tired night shift workers. Among them are the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters.

Even those of us who don't manage nuclear reactors or oil tankers are occasionally in situations where falling asleep could be dangerous. If you feel yourself falling asleep while driving, or in any potentially hazardous situation, stop what you are doing and take a nap. No matter how rushed you are or where you have to be, it's not worth your life or health, or that of others.

How Much is Enough?

Everyone knows someone who seems to thrive on five hours of sleep, but these lucky people are rare. The amount necessary varies from person to person, but most of us function best with seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Children need about ten hours. And so do young adults, who tend to be the most sleep-deprived of all.

Contrary to popular belief, we don't need less sleep as we age. We just tend to get less, as our sleep becomes lighter and we tend to wake more easily.

To discover your optimum amount of sleep, keep a sleep journal. Over the course of a week or two, note how much time you spend in bed, how much actual sleep you get and how you feel each day. Then look at the days when you felt the most alert and energetic, and check how many hours of sleep you got the night before.

When you start to get the amount of sleep your body (and mind) really need, you may at first feel like you are neglecting other important matters. But soon you will notice that you accomplish more during the day if you are well-rested.

Tips for Great Snoozing

Most people who are sleep-deprived just need to spend more time in bed. But the quality of sleep is important, too. If you wake frequently during the night, the deepest, most restorative states of sleep are interrupted. Some suggestions for getting sound sleep are:
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This may seem like torture on weekends, but stick to your schedule as closely as possible. And if you do need to make up for sleep shortages, do so by taking a nap or going to bed early instead of sleeping late.
  • Skip tobacco, caffeine and alcohol after dinner. Alcohol may make you feel tired at first, but it will make you wake more frequently during the night.
  • Unwind before going to bed by reading, writing in a journal,taking a warm bath, watching television or some other quiet activity you find relaxing. Don't do it in your bedroom, though. Save your bed for sleep.
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark. Get light-blocking shades and earplugs if necessary. If you don't fall asleep within 15 minutes or so, get up. Trying too hard will only make it worse. Read or watch television until you are tired.

See your doctor if you frequently have trouble sleeping or are always tired (even with enough sleep). You may have a sleep disorder or other medical problem that can be helped. Read more about the Sleep Study facilities at Valley View Hospital.

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