By Michael Levin
America is sleeping even worse than usual these days, an unfortunate side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
People are more stressed than ever, they’re staring into the blue light on their computer screens and phones until all hours, and they are out of their normal routines.
All of that makes for poor night’s sleep, says Cindy Geyer, MD, ABIM, ABOIM, ABLM, head of the medical staff at Canyon Ranch, the health and fitness oriented resort in Lennox, Massachusetts.
“It used to be badge of honor that you could go by on four hours of sleep a night,” Dr. Geyer says. “When I was a resident, you would work all night, grab a donut and some Maalox, and then it would be right back to work. And we were proud of it.
“Since then, we’ve learned that a good night’s sleep is the foundation of all physical health and wellness. But these days, people are just not sleeping enough and they’re not sleeping well.”
Dr. Geyer suggests that there’s practically an epidemic of sleeplessness exacerbated by the exceptionally tense times. But there is hope.
“Sleep health can be achieved,” she says. “And it’s not just about taking an Ambien and hoping for the best.
Surprisingly, Dr. Geyer points out, sleep health begins first thing in the morning with a solid breakfast.
She says that studies point to the fact that a healthy breakfast provides the foundation for the energy we need in order to get through the day.
She’s also a big fan of being alive to the natural rhythms of the body.
“After we’ve performed our normal bodily functions in the body,” she says, “we peak in terms of our ability to give attention to our work or other issues around 10 in the morning. Our attention wanes late in the afternoon, and that’s why taking a nap can be an excellent way to get through the day. Studies indicate that naps of even 15 or minutes’ duration can make a huge difference.
Of course, the biggest predictor of a good night’s sleep is your evening routine.
You want to eat dinner three to four hours before you go to bed, Dr. Geyer advises. “This gives your body a chance to digest, which means that it will have a better chance to rest.”
She also advises cutting down, or ideally cutting out, any contact with cell phones, laptops, or other screens in the two hours before bedtime.
“The blue light emitted by screens both delays and decreases melatonin production”, she councils, “andthat reduces the likelihood of your having an easy time getting to sleep or staying to sleep.”
Similarly, she advises that if you wake up in the middle of the night for any reason, the last thing you should do is check your phone for the latest email, social media posts, or news.
“It’s going to overstimulate you,” she says, “it can wait.”
Sleeping in an appropriate environment is also the smart choice, she says.
“It’s not a great idea to have pets sleeping with you in the bedroom. Ideally, you want a light-proof and sound-proof environment. If you live in an urban area, your cardiovascular system is still stimulated by the sound of sirens, even if you are sleeping through them. If you can use some sort of white noise device, that would be best.
“Now if your spouse is a loud snorer, you may even want to consider separate bedrooms,” she says.
“And if snoring is your problem, it might be indicative of sleep apnea, which is caused by, and exacerbates, many of the chief killers—heart disease, strokes, and alike.
“You want to get tested if you snore a lot,” she says. “It’s not a lot of fun to resolve a sleep apnea issue. But it can put years on your life.”
The main thing is not expecting that you will fall asleep instantly.
“It takes the average person 10 or 20 minutes of lying there to fall asleep,” Dr. Geyer advises. “But if you do everything right, from breakfast through avoiding your devices in the last hours before you go to bed, chances are, you’ll enjoy a restful night’s sleep without resorting to medications. Medications have their place, but they do have side effects and are typically a short-term solution. Focusing on sleep health is the wise choice if you want to allow your body the time it needs to restore and rejuvenate and get you ready for an enjoyable next day.”