By Maggie Augustyn, DDS
The Essential Need for Sleep
The tide is turning. As experts in the oral cavity, dentists are for the first time being brought in on the conversation about sleep. We bring a tremendous amount of knowledge to support primary physicians; ear, nose, and throat specialists; pulmonologists; and somnologists, and we’re happy to be carrying the weight needed in treating patients suffering from sleep-disordered breathing with oral appliances. However, as much as we like to dish out advice on the importance of sleep, we may not be quick to follow it ourselves. As providers, we begin the conversation with our patients by asking if they’re rising from bed refreshed and awake. We talk about symptoms and risk factors of disrupted sleep. We look for correlations between their medical history and sleep apnea symptoms such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. But as practitioners and humans ourselves, do we as patients consider the price we pay for skimping on sleep? Have we come to understand that lack of sleep can be deadly?
In 2012, a man was reported to have died after attempting to watch every single game in the European Football Championship and going a total of 11 days without sleep. There is a societal price to be paid when we don’t rest enough. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s recommended that an average adult receive about 7.1 hours of sleep. However, 73% of us fall short of that on a regular basis. Furthermore, the National Department of Transportation has determined 1,550 deaths and over 40,000 injuries in the United States are due to sleepy drivers.
Decades ago, we thought we needed sleep because we were sleepy. This fallacy is akin to saying that we eat because we’re hungry, not because we need nutrition. Sleep has a very integral role in our function as human beings. It’s essential for development, energy consumption, the clearance of brain waste, cognition, performance modulation of immune responses, as well vigilance and a healthy psychological state.
Though the benefits of sleep have been proven to advance our ability to function, dentists do not prioritize sleep; we underestimate its importance. We think we can somehow get away with less and sometimes take pride in how little sleep we think we require to function. To get maximum benefits of sleep we can create small and necessary changes that if properly executed will not just guarantee is the recommended 7.1 hours of sleep but will awaken us refreshed and rested. These small changes, though difficult to implement at first, can significantly change the architecture of our sleep. They can cut down on the needless brain noise that distracts us from falling asleep and put the pattern of brainwaves at optimum.
Good Sleep Hygiene
Once you prioritize sleep, the next step is to set a schedule of sleep and keep to it. Weekends and weeknights should have the same structure; set aside at least 7.5 hours in bed every day, at the same time. Only use the bed for sleep and intimate activities. Don’t eat in bed, and don’t watch TV. The same should go for your kids. Keep them off the bed doing their homework, chatting with friends, or watching online videos. Misusing the mattress sends signals to your brain confusing it when it’s bedtime.
Next, only go to bed when tired. If you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes, get up, walk around, and return to bed only when tired. This back and forth can take time; the process can be frustrating, but it’s well worth the effort. Those who are truly committed to getting restful sleep will reduce bright lights in their home at least 60 minutes before bedtime. For those especially serious, blinking lights on electronics in the bedroom will be blacked out with duct tape. Any outside lights creeping in thru the windows will also be cut out with special room darkening shades or curtains. In those 60 minutes of diminished artificial light, it’s essential that your eyes don’t fall on anything emitting blue light such as TV, phone, or iPad. The reduction in light, especially blue light, will stimulate melatonin, a hormone that reduces your body temperature helping you fall asleep.
At bedtime, winding down can instead be facilitated by reading a physical book. A 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading reduces stress by up to 68%i more specifically it reduces heart rate and allows for muscles to relax.
One last piece of advice is to keep all bedroom clocks out of sight. Watching the time speed forward when having a hard time falling asleep will lead to uneasiness and anxiety.
The Effort Towards Sleep Is Worth It
Changes can be difficult to make, and the return on effort sometimes doesn’t always seem immediately worth the time. While the above-outlined sleep hygiene methodology may seem trivial and insignificant, it can be one of the most rewarding adjustments in our daily planning. If you find that you’re not practicing the above, implementing one or two suggestions per week can make the transition easier. Help is available in the form of podcasts and books, and there are therapists and coaches that specialize in sleep hygiene. A night full of adequate sleep will allow for easier decision-making and provide a gentler ride on life’s roller coaster. Small changes in our own habits can result in better sleep hygiene and bring about a more balanced lifestyle and mindful presence in our lives.
i (4) Lewis, D. (2009), Galaxy Stress Research. Mindlab International, Sussex University, UK.
Author: Maggie W. Augustyn, DDS is a practicing general dentist and author. She earned a Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004. Her passions are equally distributed in both dentistry and writing. She is a practice owner of over 15 years in Elmhurst, Illinois.