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Developing Good Sleep Habits

Sleep is necessary to allow the brain and body to recover from and absorb all the day's events, allowing you to think clearer and perform better in all aspects of life. Researchers have shown that the ideal amount of sleep in order to perform the best in both sports and mental tasks is between seven and eight hours nightly. This amount might vary a little from person to person but is overall an effective guideline. It is also evidenced that the better rested you are, the quicker and more efficiently you accomplish tasks, making that extra hour out of your day used to sleep worthwhile because you gain it back by being more efficient!

Trouble Sleeping
Sleep and stress are very closely related. Stress can often deprive you of sleep by occupying both your mind and your scheduled time for sleep. Stress can also occasionally cause you to sleep too much, or oversleep due to fatigue. Trouble sleeping for a few nights or even a few weeks can be common at times of both positive and negative stress. If sleep is a problem for more than one week, however, or is interfering with daily functioning such as missed work or practice, you should see a doctor for effective ways to improve this. Chronic lack of sleep can result in both physical illness and emotional instability. In the short term, not sleeping impairs your reflexes, alertness, and brain, body, and nerve response. Sleep deprivation can be similar to being under the influence of alcohol or sedating drugs and can make driving and activities that require balance dangerous.

Caffeine is a major reason for disturbed sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, avoid caffeine after noon because caffeine actually stays in the body for more than 12 hours. Certain medications, such as antibiotics, antidepressants, and steroids, can also interfere with sleep, especially when mixed with caffeine. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if your sleep problems are recent and you are taking a new medication.

Of course, children, a snoring spouse, or even a problem pet can interfere with your sleep. Try to manage this by arranging for help or changing sleeping arrangements on noisy nights of the week. Taking naps when your children do can also help replenish sleep. Although the ideal way to achieve rest is at night, naps can be effective for recharging the mind and body during the day. Some elite athletes swear by them.

Improving Sleep
There are many natural ways to improve your sleep, including relaxation techniques, natural herbs, or scents such as lavender and valerian, calming decaffeinated teas, warm milk, or even a small snack. A warm bath, warm sheets, or soothing music can also lull you to sleep.

There are a few things you should avoid: Do not use alcohol to induce sleep—alcohol interferes with the quality of sleep and your body can become dependent on it, requiring more and more over time to help you "relax." Also, do not make a habit of taking over-the-counter sleeping pills, as they can be addictive. These include melatonin, valerian, and diphenhydramine (the common ingredient in "PM" medicines and Benadryl). If you need to take a pill to help you sleep on a nightly basis for more than one week, let your doctor know. Prescription sleeping pills can be a better treatment, as newer pills to the market are less addictive. For sleep that does not improve after one month, seeking the help of a therapist or counselor is beneficial and recommended.

Tips to Improve Your Sleep

  • Avoid caffeine, especially after noon.
  • Do not work out within two hours of going to bed.
  • Do not eat a heavy meal two hours before going to bed.
  • Try lavender-scented sprays, candles, and lotions.
  • Use relaxation techniques to help yourself fall asleep.
  • Imagine yourself in a dreamlike place; begin a happy dream in your mind.
  • Think carefree thoughts, not about work.
  • Keep a notepad by your bed for thoughts that might be keeping you awake.
  • Turn off your telephone ringer so no one can call and wake you up.
  • If you are nervous about your alarm not going off, set a second one.
  • Turn off the TV before a show starts so you are not tempted to stay up to watch it.
  • Indulge in comfy pillows, sheets, a teddy bear, or a body pillow.
  • Keep stressful reminders or work-related items out of your bedroom.
  • If you are bothered by noise, purchase a "white noise" maker or turn on a fan.
  • Try a warm bath before bedtime.
  • Drink (decaffeinated) herbal tea or warm milk with vanilla and sugar before bed.
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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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