Because I am in the field of sleep disorders, I am often asked by a friend or a patient whether a certain activity is bad for their sleep. Lists of sleep tips abound and most people know the common ones about avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. Some people further understand that watching TV late into the night or sleeping-in on weekends should be avoided. And a few are well versed in such pitfalls as going to bed earlier to make up for lost sleep, staying in bed fraught with worry if alert at night, or jumping on the stationary bike to wear themselves out if they can’t get to sleep.
When presented with such questions, I always end my answer with, “… if you are having trouble sleeping”. The reason is that good sleepers are confident in their sleep, and they understand how to keep their sleep on track if they indulge themselves a bit from time to time. For example, watching TV late into the night is not a good idea for someone with insomnia because it emits light and sound, and because it can engage the mind and keep a person up much later than intended. However a good sleeper, as I like to say, can do whatever they want. Late TV for a night? Usually fine. Extra slice of key lime pie before bed? Why not. Sleep-in a while after a late night? Sure!
But here is where caution should be applied: Sleep can go from good to bad in a fairly insidious manner. The extra time lounging in bed can start an association of the bed with alertness (see my recent blog post on drooling). Working on the computer later into the night can affect (suppress) our melatonin levels, leading to more difficulty falling and staying sleep. The leisurely afternoon nap can start to affect our nighttime sleep if too long or late in the day. These activities can begin to sap our daytime energy level as sleep starts to deteriorate at night.
Think of it like eating and weight gain. You may be doing fine, but then you find that those jeans are getting just a little snug. It’s usually not a surprise once you stop and think about it. The burger joint you started to frequent, the extra computer work you have been doing (causing you to sit more), the forgotten gym membership, or my personal vice: the leftovers on the kids’ plates. Studies have even shown that when people don’t sleep enough they eat higher calorie food during the day without realizing it.
So yes, if you sleep great, enjoy! But beware of some slippery slopes with sleep:
- The morning coffee that becomes an additional afternoon cup to ward off fatigue
- The occasional short weekend nap after some good exercise that gradually turns into a big afternoon siesta when adequate sleep has not been attained during the week
- The couple of drinks with dinner that slowly turn into a nightcap, especially when getting to sleep becomes more difficult
- The normally short awakening at night that morphs into the extended event of a racing mind, a bowl of ice cream and a check of email
I would never encourage any of my friends or patients to remove all the fun out of life to get some better sleep, but rather encourage them to find a balance that works. Balance that can be challenging on a slippery slope!
How do you keep from slipping?