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Sleep cycle

By REBECCA KONYA

Sleep is an essential part of good health, as important as a balanced diet and regular exercise. Unfortunately, most Americans view sleep as a waste of time. "We as a society donít place enough value on sleep," says Steve Gardner, director of marketing for the Sleep Wellness Institute and executive director of the Reggie White Sleep Disorders Foundation.

Dr. Rose Franco, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says people donít make sleep a priority. "We need to do a better job of making time to sleep," she says.

A study by the National Sleep Foundation indicates that 60 to 70 percent of the population in the United States doesnít get enough sleep at night. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night, but most people average just six and one-half hours. When you donít get enough sleep, your body develops a sleep debt ó one of the hardest debts to repay, Gardner says. "It keeps accumulating and you feel more and more exhausted."

Although your brain will make up for some sleep deficit, continuing to restrict sleep over time impacts the quality of sleep. "Itís a misnomer that you can catch up on lost sleep because itís not healthy sleep," Franco says. When continuously deprived of sleep, youíre less likely to cycle into delta sleep, the deepest stage of sleep when the body rejuvenates itself most.

Lack of sleep sets people up for serious health problems, Gardner says. Prolonged sleep deprivation subjects your body to tremendous stress, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure. Inadequate sleep also puts people at higher risk for obesity because they lack energy and become less active during the day. In addition, sleep debt promotes hunger. "Your brain gets confused and asks for more fuel, so now youíre less active and youíre consuming more calories," Franco says.

Although no formal studies have been conducted on the relationship between sleep deprivation and premature aging, both Gardner and Franco agree itís easy to tell a person is exhausted just by looking at them. "It makes you look more haggard," Franco says.

Here are some simple tips for better sleep:
 

> Keep the same sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends.

Franco advises keeping the same sleep schedule seven days per week, deviating your bedtime or wake-up time by only an hour or two. "The best time to sleep is between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.," Franco says. "Thatís when most peopleís brains want to go to sleep. When you ignore sleep signals you end up with a chaotic schedule and your body doesnít react properly to the sleep it has gotten."
 

> Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.

A relaxing bedtime routine helps separate sleep time from daytime activities. "Follow a quiet routine similar to what you have in place for your kids," Franco suggests. "An hour before bed, take a hot bath, read or watch a TV show."
 

> Create a sleep-conducive environment.

Gardner says the best way to promote good sleep is a dark bedroom and a comfortable bed. "The room shouldnít be too hot or too cold," he adds. And turn the alarm clock away from you so you canít see the light the digital face emits ó just that small amount of light can disturb your sleep.
 

> Reserve your bedroom for sleep.

Reduce the amount of distractions in the bedroom, including TVs, computers and cell phones. "Use the bedroom just for sleeping," Franco says. "Minimize the intrusiveness of society ó turn off your cell phone and computer."

If you struggle with occasional insomnia, itís OK to try over-the-counter sleep aids, Franco says, but if youíre using these products several times a week, itís time to see your doctor. "If you have trouble sleeping for more than just a few nights, donít wait," Gardner says.