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If you’ve ever spent a frustrating night staring wide-eyed at the ceiling or awakened feeling tired despite getting a whole night’s sleep, you know the agony of poor sleep and the exhaustion it brings the following day.

Sleep is a basic part of life. You spend approximately one-third of your life or about 3,000 hours a  year sleeping.

However, not everyone gets restful sleep each night. About 74% of American adults suffer from chronic or occasional difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep for a few nights a week or more. Studies have shown that if you don’t get adequate sleep, your ability to concentrate and function rapidly deteriorates.

This information will cover sleep and sleep disorders and will provide suggestions on how you can get a good night’s sleep.

The Importance of Sleep
The average person takes about 10 minutes to fall asleep and sleeps about seven to eight hours a night. Everyone’s sleep needs differ. Babies sleep about 18 hours each day while adults may get by on six to seven hours of sleep every night. Your personal sleep requirements are determined by the amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and stay alert during the day.

Sleep allows your body to recharge itself. While you sleep, your body gets rid of skin waste and circulates minerals, vitamins and hormones. It is also the time when your body produces the most amount of infection-fighting substances. That’s why bed rest is so important when you have a cold.

Getting adequate sleep often makes a difference in your moods and your efficiency at work and at home.

What Happens During Sleep
Scientists who study sleep have learned that sleep involves two kinds of resting periods: quiet sleep and active sleep. Throughout the night, you shift from quiet sleep to active sleep and back to quiet sleep. This basic sleep cycle takes an average of about 90 to 110 minutes and occurs four to five times every night.

During quiet sleep, body functions start slowing down and brain wave activity becomes irregular. This type of sleep has three phases:

Stage 1   As you drift off to sleep, your muscles begin to relax, your heart rate decreases and brain waves slow down and get more irregular. You are still aware of your surroundings and if awakened, you would deny that you fell asleep. Stage 1 lasts only a few minutes before you go into Stage 2.

Stage 2   Your body functions slow down even more and your thoughts become fragmented. Although you are unaware of your surroundings, you can awaken easily. This stage lasts from five to 20 minutes.

Delta Sleep or deep sleep (also  known as Stages 3 and 4)   Your brain is now at its lowest state of consciousness. Your muscles are relaxed and your body functions decrease. Your are difficult to awaken. Research has shown that if you don’t get enough delta sleep at night, you will feel tired the next day - no matter how much stage 1 and stage 2 sleep you get. After spending time in delta sleep, you gradually return to stage 2. Then you may go into active sleep which is distinguished by rapid eye movements (REM) under closed eyelids that occur during this period. In REM sleep, your body metabolism increases and the brain produces distinctive wave patterns.

REM sleep periods last about 10 minutes. Research shows that it is the time when you dream the most actively. Studies of sleepers roused out of REM sleep reveal that subjects are able to vividly recall their dreams 80 percent of the time. Sleepers who were wakened during quiet sleep remembered their dreams less than 10 percent of the time.

About Insomnia
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder which occurs when you cannot fall asleep or stay asleep. Here are three basic types of problems caused by insomnia and suggestions for help:

1. You cannot fall asleep.

Get up one hour earlier than usual for one week. The more time you are awake, the less time it takes to fall asleep. If there is no improvement, set your alarm clock back another hour each following week. Once the problem is solved, add 15 minutes of sleep each morning or night until you meet your sleep needs. Avoid beverages and food containing caffeine, such as colas, coffee, tea and chocolate in the evening.

2. You wake up after sleeping for a short time and can’t go back to sleep.

Don’t stay in bed longer than 30 minutes when you wake up in the middle of your sleep. Get out of bed and do something until you feel sleepy then go back to bed. Get up one hour earlier that week. If that doesn’t work, get up an hour earlier each following week until you wake up less often. Then set your alarm clock to add 15 minutes of morning sleep each week until you reach your normal amount of sleep.

Avoid naps. Exercise vigorously during the day or go to bed an hour later than usual. When you wake up in the morning, don’t stay in bed longer than 30 minutes.

3. You get up several times during the night.

Frequent awakenings may be a symptom of disorders such as Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep and Sleep Apnea. Caffeine, alcohol and medication may also interrupt your sleep. If you wake up with thoughts racing through your mind, write a list of errands and concerns you can deal with in the morning. Put the list aside and go back to bed.

If you still have problems initiating or maintaining sleep, contact your physician. You may have a sleep disorder that can be diagnosed and treated.

Serious Sleep Disorders
Some people can’t get adequate rest because of sleep disorders which interfere with normal sleep cycles. These disorders require diagnosis and treatment by a physician since they can lead to serious health problems:

   • Sleep apnea  People with this problem stop breathing anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes or more during their sleep. This may occur several hundred times each night, causing daytime sleepiness.

Sleep apnea deprives the body of oxygen, which may overwork the heart. If it is left untreated, this can result in high blood pressure, a heart attack or stroke. Sleep apnea can be treated with mechanical devices although sometimes surgery is needed to remove obstructive tissue. Sufferers should avoid smoking, alcohol and sleeping pills.

   • Narcolepsy  People with narcolepsy experience sudden sleep attacks at inappropriate times. Other symptoms include sleep paralysis and the sudden loss of muscle tone. Sleep paralysis is a symptom of narcolepsy. A person wakes up fully conscious and aware of his or her surroundings, but is unable to move and cannot speak for a brief period of time. Cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone, may occur. A person collapses and experiences a dream-like state. This condition is triggered by sudden strong emotions such as anger, surprise, joy or stress. Muscle tone returns almost immediately. Narcolepsy can be treated with drug therapy and scheduled daytime naps.

Other Common Sleep Disorders
There are other sleep disorders which are not life-threatening. These sleep disorders can be a nuisance to the sleeper as well as to others around him:

Snoring  Snoring occurs when the tongue falls over the throat opening and blocks the flow of air. It is most severe when the snorer is on his back. Men tend to snore more than women. Also, though snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea, not all snorers have sleep apnea. Snoring is a symptom of a partially blocked breathing passage (airway) and may cause symptoms similar to sleep apnea. To help prevent snoring:

   • Sleep on your side to keep your tongue from blocking your throat.
   • Stack several pillows under your head when you sleep so your head is raised.
   • Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills before bedtime since alcohol and such medicines cause throat muscles to relax.

Sleepwalking  A sleepwalker gets out of bed and walks around with open eyes. Sleepwalkers seem to be unaware of their surroundings, yet they avoid obstacles in their paths. If someone in your home sleepwalks, take precautions so that the person does not get injured. Block off stairs and lock windows and doors to prevent the person from leaving home. Repeated incidents should be reported to your doctor.

Periodic limb movements of sleep  Some people jerk their legs or arms when they’re about to fall asleep; this is normal. Involuntary kicks in the middle of sleep is another type of disorder. The kicks aren’t strong enough to wake you but can disturb your sleep patterns and those of your partner. People affected by this problem don’t sleep very well and often blame it on insomnia.

Another kind of sleep disorder involving leg movements is “Restless legs” syndrome, which causes an uncomfortable feeling in the calves of your legs when you relax or lie still. Relief comes from vigorously moving your legs or walking around.

Some of these disorders are treatable with drug therapy.

Shift work can also cause sleep disorders.  Changing your work schedule constantly can affect your body clock. If you do shift work, the following suggestions may help you adapt more easily to the changes:

   • Try to arrange for a shift schedule that lasts for two to three weeks at a time rather than two to three days if you work on a rotating shift. Your body needs time to get used to the change.
   • Workers who rotate shifts adapt more easily to working the shift that follows than the one before their shift. You can delay your bedtime more easily than trying to go to sleep earlier.
   • Try to work on a shift you feel most effective and productive on.
   • Keep to your sleeping and waking schedule on your days off so you won’t throw off your body clock.

Sleep Better Tonight
Sometimes, taking a warm bath and listening to soft music are all you need to fall asleep. Other times, it isn’t enough. Sleep experts suggest the following tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:

   • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon or evening since it disturbs your sleep by stimulating your body.
   • Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. It may help you fall asleep faster, but it usually prevents deep sleep a few hours later.
   • Exercise in the late afternoon or early evening. Stop exercising within three hours before sleeping since exercise stimulates the body.
   • Eat a light snack before you go to bed. Do not eat a heavy meal or spicy foods within two hours of going to sleep.
   • Drink a glass of milk about a half-hour before going to bed. Milk contains tryptophan, a natural sleep inducer.
   • If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, don’t watch the clock. Get out of bed and do something else.
   • Try to keep the same bedtime and wake-up time throughout the week to allow your body to get into a natural rhythm.

If you experience more than three or four days of chronic sleeplessness, consult your physician for help.

Getting ample rest is an important part of staying healthy. Occasional problems with falling asleep and periodic arousals are nothing to worry about. The solution often lies in changing those habits that deprive you of sleep. Then instead of counting sheep, you can count on getting the sleep you need to wake up feeling refreshed in the morning.