When it comes to sleep problems, Charlene Gamaldo, MD, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, has seen it all: Some patients struggle to fall asleep, others wake up countless times during the night or log a full eight hours between the sheets but still feel tired in the morning.
Thanks to what Gamaldo calls, “a sleep renaissance” that emphasizes the importance of sleep as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, more people are invested in getting a good night’s rest. “[Sleep] is the fountain of youth, wellness, health and peak performance, mentally and physically,” Gamaldo says.
To avoid tossing and turning or counting sheep, Gamaldo offers these four tips to improve your sleep:
1. UNDERSTAND YOUR SLEEP NEEDS
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults sleep at least seven hours per night for optimal health and well-being — but their research shows that more than 1/3 of Americans fail to meet that minimum on a regular basis.
While 7–9 hours of sleep per night might be hailed as the gold standard, Gamaldo admits, “We’re not all scripted.” In other words, some of us need more (or less) sleep than others. The quality and timing of sleep are also important.
To determine your ideal sleep scenario, Gamaldo suggests an experiment: Go to bed when you’re sleepy (and can fall asleep within 30 minutes of crawling under the covers) and sleep until you wake naturally, without an alarm clock. If you sleep soundly and don’t feel sleepy during day, you’ve hit on your ideal sleep timing and duration.
Breaking a sweat during the day could increase the quality of your sleep. Research published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found those who engaged in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity weekly had better sleep quality and less daytime sleepiness than their more sedentary peers. “Exercise helps to increase the percentage of slow-wave sleep often referred to as deep sleep,” says Gamaldo.
3. RETHINK SCREEN TIME
Your smartphone, tablet and late-night “Stranger Things” marathons could impact your sleep. Gamaldo prefers a no-screens-in-the-bedroom rule because the blue light blunts the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, interrupting the sleep/wake cycle. Moreover, she explains, “We typically get riled up when we’re looking at our [screens]; there are emotional reasons to disconnect at night.”
If checking email, scrolling through social-media feeds or watching Netflix in bed are hard habits to break, Gamaldo advises switching the screen setting to “night” mode to diminish the blue light. You should also aim to spend less time snuggled up to a screen at night.
4. STOP STRESSING ABOUT SLEEP STATS
New research predicts that by 2021, more than 75 million Americans will be wearing physical activity trackers.
Although wearable devices can help you track your sleep quantity and provide data on the number of times you wake each night, having that information might not always be helpful. Gamaldo explains, “It can create a sense of anxiety and insomnia because you’re so hyper-vigilant about your sleep stats.”
But there is a benefit to using wearable devices to track sleep data. “Sleep trackers can heighten the awareness of prioritizing sleep,” she says. So, feel free to track your stats but don’t worry too much if the results are less than perfect — a good night’s sleep depends on it.
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Dr. Charlene Gamaldo is the medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and the vice chair of faculty development for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Neurology Department. Her research interests are in the area of investigating the health consequences of poor sleep on disease presentation, progression and management.
Dr. Gamaldo received her medical degree from The George Washington University School of Medicine. After her neurology residency at the University of North Carolina Hospital at Chapel Hill, Dr. Gamaldo became the first neurology sleep fellow at Johns Hopkins and has remained on faculty as a champion of sleep health and wellness for her patients, fellow health professionals and the general public.