Editor’s note: This series will be written by practitioners in Summit Medical Group (SMG) on health-related topics. This one is by Dr. Marianna Shimelfarb, an integrative family medicine physician who is practicing at Montclair Family Medicine at SMG. Before joining SMG, she served as an associate professor of family medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
By Dr. MARIANNA SHIMELFARB
for Montclair Local
I am deep asleep, immersed in dreams, when I hear the sound of an alarm. …
Thoughts rush into my head: “Oh, no! Not again. I don’t want to get up.” I open my eyes and say, “Tonight, I will go to bed earlier.” I get up, start my day, and the next morning the cycle repeats.
If you are among the nearly one in three adults who do not get enough sleep, your tossing and turning is bound to get worse over the holidays. In my practice, I often see patients who complain of fatigue, decreased concentration and frequently catching colds.
Poor sleep doesn’t just make us irritable and less productive, it also affects our physical health and immune system. Studies have shown that lack of sleep increases the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression.
We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, and yet very few of us view it as a precious time of day. When the lights are out, our body and mind take a break and prepare for the next day. Physical changes occur — the heart rate slows down, body temperature drops, and tired muscles mend.
When my patients complain of “always feeling tired,” I ask them about their sleep. While people typically need between seven and nine hours of sleep per day, it is the quality of sleep that most affects our ability to function.
Throughout the night, our body enters alternating stages of light and deep sleep. If you are in bed for eight hours and still feel tired, you are probably not spending enough time in the deepest stages of sleep when dreams occur, known as restorative sleep.
So how can we sleep better? First, we need to think of sleep as both a daytime and nighttime routine. How we act during the day — eating a late meal, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or skipping a workout — affects our slumber that night.
Find ways to calm your mind throughout the day. Meditation, yoga and deep breathing exercises can help you slow down and find moments of quiet in your busy day. Physical activity also helps reduce stress and decrease pain or stiffness that can make us uncomfortable at night.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Dim the lights and turn off electronics at least a half-hour before bedtime. The brain confuses the blue lights emitted by smartphones as sunlight and stops making melatonin, a hormone that helps your body fall into deep sleep.
If you are overloaded with tasks and glued to the TV or phone until 10 p.m., it may be difficult to wind down. You may collapse into bed at first, but you are less likely to enter restorative sleep because your brain is still processing the news you saw on social media.
Finally, one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow is, don’t panic. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I never look at the clock or my phone because knowing the exact time will make my mind worry about how much sleep I might be missing. Even if you can’t get back to sleep, resting quietly can still help restore your body.
When patients come in this time of year, I remind them to give themselves the most important present of all — the gift of sleep. It doesn’t cost anything and it never goes out of style. And I guarantee, if you are well rested, your holiday will be filled with even more cheer.