Sleep remains a mysterious, poorly understood process. Is it there to energize the central nervous system, de-energize it or allow a sort of “wash cycle” involving cerebrospinal fluid to take place? There’s evidence to support all three of these hypotheses. Whatever’s happening, it’s important, judging not only by how miserable and impaired a sleep-deprived person rapidly becomes, but also by scientific research: People with sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.
Perhaps most frustrating is how little control we have over sleep. The best one can do is set the stage each night, and hope the sandman shows up. To get some tips on improving your sleep, we talked to a couple local sleep researchers: Christine Kovach, a UW-Milwaukee nursing professor and expert in sleep for the elderly, and Jennifer Doering, an associate professor of nursing at UWM who has studied the sleep of postpartum mothers.
Shoot for stage four
During a typical eight-hour slumber, the body will cycle through four or five sleep cycles, and at the end of each is a short span of stage-four sleep, aka “rapid eye movement sleep,” where the most vivid dreaming usually occurs. Most scientists believe that this stage is important to brain function. Small interruptions, Doering says, such as a phone buzzing next to your bed, can interfere.
Bright LCD screens have only gotten easier and more tempting to carry with you into bed. They can also forestall sleep through light exposure, keeping parts of your brain ticking away. “We’re so used to keeping ourselves stimulated,” Kovach says. She recommends reducing light 90 minutes to two hours before lying down to encourage the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, in your brain.
Don’t become a vampire
Healthy circadian rhythms, which underlie sleep, require both exposure to plenty of light during the day and darkness at night. This means that going for a walk during the afternoon really will help you to sleep later on. Exercise also helps, but Doering warns against exercising too late, because it raises your body temperature, and your body needs to cool itself when falling asleep.
Create the right environment
A cool, dark room with a mattress in good condition is all you need. And don’t use your bed for non-sleep activities, such as work or eating. “You want your bedroom to be a sanctuary for falling asleep,” Doering says. Kovach says that reading in bed is OK, using a soft light, as is listening to a book on tape before trying to fall asleep.
Limit nap time
Even when sleep-deprived, take short naps and try to stick relatively close to your normal sleep schedule, says Kovach. This also goes for the elderly, who tend to rise earlier and nap more during the day. Training the body to follow the same schedule, day after day, can help tremendously. Kovach does this so well in her own life that when she travels abroad, she finds it hard to adjust to a different time zone.
While a few drinks may help you doze off, alcohol is flushed from the body rather quickly, leading to a rebound of wakefulness and worse sleep. Kovach says this has been confirmed by research again and again. Tobacco can have a similar effect, as withdrawal kicks in midway through a night’s snooze.