By: Kelly Baron, PhD, MPH, DBSM
The beginning of Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the spring, when we “spring forward,” is always a great opportunity to remind people the importance of sleep. It is estimated that 1/3rd of adults sleep less than the recommended 7-9 hrs of sleep and the rates of sleep deficiency are even greater among teenagers. In the day or two after DST, most of us become a little more aware of our sleep loss, because we lose another hour for a day or two until we adjust. It’s always a big reminder to me how much one hour of sleep matters to health and well-being.
It has been stated by some sleep experts “if you don’t sleep you die.” Well, that is probably true in the general sense that sleep is a basic function of human life (and did lead to death at the early rodent studies of sleep deprivation) but I think the main benefits of sleep are felt in how you live your daily life, including mood, concentration, and health. In my job as a sleep researcher and clinician, I conduct research on the health effects of sleep loss and also see patients who want to sleep more, but cannot, due to insomnia or other sleep disorders. Every day I see examples of people who are tired, frustrated, and sick because they are not getting the sleep they need. It’s incredibly rewarding to help improve this aspect of their lives that seems to have downstream effects of improving their overall outlook on life. It’s one reason I went into this field.
Given my emphasis on sleep health, you may think that I am big on getting enough sleep. You are right about that, but the truth is…I’m not the best sleeper. I keep to very regular bedtime and wake times, exercise, drink only 1-2 c of coffee in the morning, and try not to take my worries to bed, but on the other hand, I often wake up in the night thinking about work, especially before deadlines. Given my training as a psychologist, I’ve learned my best tool is not to stress about losing a few hours of sleep in one of these periods, because it usually comes back when the deadline passes. Plus stressing about not sleeping never helped anyone.
Similarly, imparting good sleep habits in my children (7-year-old twins) is also one of my goals as parent- this includes having a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine with story time every night, and teaching them good sleep habits- including avoiding electronics after dinner and keeping them out of the bedroom. I know things will get harder when they are teens (Cell phones!!! Social networking!!) but I hope we can continue to maintain developmentally appropriate household rules that promote their sleep. I’ve certainly seen enough teenagers in clinic on their phones all night to know that the phones will be in our room overnight until they go to college.
While my sleep isn’t perfect, I strive to lead by example and to share the message that sleep is a pillar of health, with diet and exercise. In each of these areas we all have room to improve but it’s important to get back on it after a lapse. It’s easy to let your bedtime creep later while you are fitting everything in your busy life, but even a small improvement (30 min more per day) can substantially improve your health and performance. In fact, you may be more productive and happy in the hours that are remaining because of it.
If you are having trouble sleeping three or more days per week, and it is affecting your daily life, you may have insomnia. Consider seeking an evaluation at an accredited sleep center.
Kelly Baron, PhD, MPH, DBSM, is an Associate Professor in the Division of Public Health in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine in Salt Lake City, UT. She is a clinical psychologist with specialty training in Behavioral Sleep Medicine.