by Rita Cheek
What do the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Exxon Valdez, and many automobile accidents have in
common? People making decisions in those situations lacked sleep. Falling asleep while driving
causes more than 100,000 automobile accidents each year in the United States. The number is likely
greater because determining if a driver fell asleep is difficult.
Individuals without enough sleep do not function at their best. Research shows that lack of sleep
results in fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired short-term memory and decreased
ability to perform complex tasks. Sleepiness also interferes with personal relationships and work
After Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, people could extend the length of their day. Today we
continue to "burn the candle at both ends" and not get the eight hours of sleep that sleep experts
recommend. According to the 2000 National Sleep Foundation (NSF) survey, the 1,154 adult respondents
averaged less than seven hours of sleep during the work week. Almost half would sacrifice sleep to
accomplish more. Some folks don't take time for sleep; others want to sleep and cannot.
Attention to sleeping conditions and daily practices can improve your sleep. Many strategies are
common sense, but still need regular evaluation. These areas are particularly important for people
experiencing sleep problems.
Tips about Sleeping Conditions
- Old mattresses no longer provides comfortable support. Replace it.
- Bed clothing restricts movement. Try looser-fitting clothing.
- Cats disturb sleep. Keep the cat out of the bedroom.
- Bright light arouses. Darken the room or wear an eye mask.
- Noise awakens. Ear plugs are cheap, effective and very useful when traveling.
Daily Practices to Improve Sleep
Although changing one's behavior is not easy, the benefits of getting sufficient sleep to function
well are worth the necessary effort.
- Limit caffeine for at least four to six hours before bedtime. Caffeine prevents sleep.
Most caffeine is excreted in three to seven hours, but effects may last seven to 14 hours,
or longer as you get older. Sources of caffeine include cocoa, chocolate, soda pop, and
over-the-counter medications as well as coffee and tea.
- Avoid nicotine, a stimulant, at bedtime and during the night.
- Limit your alcohol intake in the evening. Alcohol helps you go to sleep, but research
shows that alcohol results in disturbed sleep during the night.
- Get regular exercise each day, but don't exercise strenuously for four to six hours before
- Avoid a large, heavy meal before bedtime. However, a light snack prevents hunger.
- Drink less fluid before going to sleep.
- Establish a bedtime routine with a quiet activity, such as reading or listening to music to
"wind down" from the day's activities.
- Get up and go to bed at a regular time on weekends as well as week days to train the body
to know when to sleep and wake.
- Designate a "Worry Time" if thoughts disturb your sleep. Take 30 minutes every evening
(undisturbed). Write down each worry, an action to solve the problem, and when you will take action.
Two helpful web sites about sleep problems can be found at: Sleep Home Pages or Sleep Foundation. Sweet dreams!
Rita Cheek, RN, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of nursing
with the Montana State University College of Nursing (Missoula campus)
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