116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Most of us think of sleep as something we do when our day ends. Lisa Gleason says it’s the opposite.
“Sleep is not the end of your day, it’s the beginning,” said Gleason, administrative director of the Eastern Iowa Sleep Center in Cedar Rapids. “You wouldn’t go on a road trip with an empty gas tank. You fill up your car before you leave. Sleep is fuel for your body.”
Experts agree the body needs sleep as much as it needs air, water and food. When you sleep, your body heals itself and restores chemical balances.
At the same time, your brain is forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Studies have shown that people who consistently get a good night’s rest are healthier, physically and mentally, than those who don’t.
“Most of us, in order to function properly and be healthy, need seven to nine hours of sleep a night,” said Dr. Eric Dyken, director of the Iowa City VA Health Center Sleep Lab and professor of neurology at the University of Iowa.
Unfortunately, many people fail to consistently get a good night’s sleep.
Why sleep is important
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of adults report they have insufficient sleep at least one night a month, and 11 percent report insufficient sleep every night. The National Institutes of Health estimate that sleep-related problems affect 50 million to 70 million Americans of all ages and socioeconomic classes.
“Our bodies want to sleep on a regular basis, but it doesn’t go well for many people,” said Dr. Scott Geisler, a neurologist with Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. Geisler also provides care at the Eastern Iowa Sleep Center, which partners with PCI, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital and Mercy Medical Center.
When a person doesn’t sleep well, Geisler says, the body feels it. Over time, sleepless nights can dramatically lower a person’s quality of life.
Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of cardiac disease and stroke — two of the top causes of death in the United States. Poor sleep habits also increase the risk of obesity, as rest helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make a person feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin).
Those who experience poor sleep may develop other health issues related to kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Even fighting a common cold can prove an uphill battle when operating on little sleep, as the immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy.
Because sleep affects how well a person thinks and reacts, sleepiness has been identified as the cause of a growing number of on-the-job accidents and automobile crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 motor vehicle accidents each year are the result of driver drowsiness or fatigue.
Geisler says insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders, with approximately half of adults reporting occasional symptoms of insomnia, either acute or chronic.
Short-term or acute insomnia is a brief episode of difficulty sleeping often caused by a stressful life event. Typically, symptoms fade on their own as time passes, and a person copes with the stressful incident. However, short-term insomnia can be persistent and turn into chronic insomnia.
Good sleep habits
Geisler notes that insomnia has increased among those working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are home all the time, making it difficult for some to separate areas for work and for sleep.
“They’ve had to use their spaces in different ways and that blurred the lines,” he said.
One way to fight insomnia is to develop better sleep habits. Children often have a bedtime routine: a bath, brushing their teeth and a story. Adults should establish their own regular routine.
“We are creatures of habit,” Geisler said. “We want a routine. We want our brains and our bodies to sync up so we can sleep. If we can’t turn off our brains, it’s not going to happen.”
Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake may help improve sleep, as will increased exercise. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, people who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night.
Screen lights from laptops, tablets and phones impact the body’s melatonin levels, which is why health care providers recommend turning off all tech at least one hour before bedtime. None of these devices should be brought to the bedroom. A television shouldn’t be in one’s bedroom, either.
“The bedroom environment has to be protected,” Dyken said. “It’s where you go to get away from the world.”
If you practice good sleep habits and still struggle to get to sleep and/or stay asleep, you may suffer from chronic insomnia. Insomnia is considered chronic if a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer.
Like acute insomnia, chronic insomnia can be tied to stressful situations, but it also may be related to irregular sleep schedules, poor sleep hygiene, mental health disorders, underlying physical or neurological problems, medications and other sleep disorders.
“Sleeping can be more difficult than people think,” Dyken said. “If common-sense practices don’t work, and you’re sleeping less than, or even more than, the recommended amount of sleep, there’s something wrong.”
A sleep study, or polysomnography, helps doctors diagnose sleep disorders such as periodic limb movement disorder, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, insomnia and nighttime behaviors like sleepwalking and REM sleep behavior disorder.
“A diagnosis is so important,” Geisler said. “Sleep medicine is a multispecialty discipline.”
According to the Eastern Iowa Sleep Center, many health conditions − congestive heart failure, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure − can be tied to sleep-disordered breathing, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
“It’s a dangerous, common disorder,” Dyken said.
Yet, despite the science behind good sleep habits, many sleep issues continue to go unchecked.
Dyken said education among medical professionals and the public is changing this, making questions about sleep more common during medical checkups.
“We’re catching up,” Dyken said. “We’re educating people, and every day we’re getting people into sleep studies faster and getting them treated. Sleep is an important topic and the more we discuss it, the better. I think we can save a lot of lives.”
1. Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. A regular bedtime routine may help signal your mind that the time to relax and sleep is approaching.
2. Avoid daytime naps or limit them to one midday afternoon nap. If your goal is to sleep more during the night, napping may make it more difficult to sleep at bedtime. Napping, however, does assist with short-term alertness.
3. Avoid caffeine, tobacco and alcohol close to bedtime.
4. Avoid big, spicy or heavy meals two to three hours before bedtime.
5. Exercise regularly but avoid exercise close to your sleeping hours.
6. Make your bedroom primarily a place for sleeping. It is not a good idea to use your bedroom for paying bills, studying, exercising, etc. Help your body recognize that this is a place for rest.
7. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and comfortable. Temperature should be slightly cool or set to your comfort. Consider eye masks, ear plugs, “white noise,” fans and humidifiers to limit distractions.
8. Avoid stress and worrisome thoughts before you sleep. It may help to write down these thoughts and items on a notepad to address when you awake.
9. Incorporate bedtime rituals. Activities such as listening to soft music or sipping a cup of herbal non-caffeinated tea can help cue your body that it’s time to slow down and begin to prepare to sleep.
10. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have may have exceeded its life expectancy — about nine or 10 years for most quality mattresses. A comfortable pillow helps, too.