Sleep. All of us need it. Few of us get enough of it. And that means you’re probably building up a sizable sleep deficit. Sleep and mental health experts at Baptist Health South Florida say too little sleep – or, yes, even too much – can be both a symptom and a cause of other health issues.
In a recent Instagram Live program hosted by Baptist Health South Florida, Dalia Lorenzo, M.D., a neurologist and board-certified sleep specialist at Miami Neuroscience Institute, spoke with Amy Exum, LMHC, a psychotherapist with Baptist Health’s Community Health & Wellness team about the importance of sleep.
Describing sleep as a chance for our brain to recharge and restore, Ms. Exum said, “Sleep is the time your brain needs for all of its daily housekeeping, consolidating memories and getting itself ready for another day.” Not getting enough sleep doesn’t just affect your mood, she said, it can also contribute to anxiety and depression.
Dr. Lorenzo noted that, like thirst and hunger, the need for sleep is a natural drive – and one that won’t be satisfied with less than seven to eight hours of sleep daily. Yet at bedtime, she said, there are plenty of other things competing for our attention, like kids, chores and unfinished work, not to mention all that screen time spent on our phones or watching television. Sleep? It can wait.
Roughly one third of U.S. adults have difficulty sleeping, said Dr. Lorenzo, and 10 to 14 percent have chronic insomnia, which is clinically defined as having difficulty falling or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or more.
Dr. Lorenzo said sleep problems sometimes have underlying physical causes but with the pandemic, she has seen a lot of patients who are having difficulty sleeping because of anxiety, depression or an adjustment in their routines or work shifts.
“Lack of sleep can affect our short-term memory,” said Dr. Lorenzo. “It can also affect our creative thinking, our problem-solving, our judgment, and our performance.” She also said that people with chronic insomnia have a higher risk for developing other, more serious conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or hypertension.
So, what can you do to get a better night’s sleep? While some sleep problems can be treated with the help of over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids, Dr. Lorenzo said simple lifestyle changes can work well, too. “Several studies have shown cognitive therapies to be just as effective as medications – a behavioral sleep specialist can help with that.”
Good sleep hygiene is also important, she said. “Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, with no TV or computer,” Dr. Lorenzo advised. “Have a regular sleep and wakeup time, and avoid stimulants like caffeine after noon. Also, avoid exercising or eating a heavy meal within several hours of bedtime, as these can interfere with your sleep.”
And if you’re one of those who is awakened by hunger pangs in the middle of the night? Dr. Lorenzo suggested eating a small protein snack such as an egg or piece of cheese before you go to bed. “That should help you get through the night without waking up hungry.”
For more of the conversation with Ms. Exum and Dr. Lorenzo, tune in to “The Importance of Sleep: From A to Zzzzz.”
In another recent program – one that also dealt with the subject of sleep – psychiatrist Rachel V. F. Rohaidy, M.D., spoke with Baptist Health’s Community Health & Wellness team about the link between sleep and anxiety.
“Stress activates adrenaline and cortisol, the two main hormones involved in our body’s stress response,” said Dr. Rohaidy in the weekly episode of Community Health’s “Ask the Psychiatrist” series. The problem, she noted, comes when we can’t “take our foot off the gas” to regulate that surge of stress hormones. “We have to be able to put the brakes on and trigger our body’s ‘rest and relax’ system.”
One of the ways we can do that is practicing good sleep hygiene, Dr. Rohaidy said, echoing Dr. Lorenzo’s advice from the Instagram Live program. Maintaining the same sleep schedule and routine every day is especially important.
“In order for us to get through our day and be successful, our brain needs to shut down and repair itself,” Dr. Rohaidy said. “For that to happen, we need to get eight to 10 hours of healthy sleep every day.” She advises including self-care practices as part of your daily routine. “Eating healthy, going outside for a bit, changing your environment and embracing a regular nighttime routine are also good ways to reduce your stress level.”
And when it comes to what happens once you’re in bed? “Your bed is for sleep and sex, that’s it,” said Dr. Rohaidy. “No reading in bed. No TV in bed. No phone in bed. No folding clothes in bed.”