Over the last decade, the topic of sleep has grown in respect as medical and scientific evidence mounts about how absolutely crucial it is to both long and short-term health. That was one motivating factor for Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital who wrote (along with Lawrence Armour) Let’s Talk About Sleep: A Guide to Understanding and Improving Your Slumber. He set out to whittle down the massive amount of information available into a manageable form to help people understand sleep and the role it plays in their lives.
We caught up with Dr. Barone to find out what we should know about sleep, and most importantly, how best to get the best sleep we can.
Why did you want to write a book on sleep?
In my training as a neurologist, I found sleep and sleep disorders to be not only fascinating but also gratifying because I’m able to help somebody feel better and protect their health down the road. I found that to be the most rewarding aspect of neurology.
I think there’s an overflow of information. Anyone can go online and look up whatever, but quality information is important.
Healthy sleep is the cornerstone of almost everything that we do. Our cognitive abilities, our ability to remember, our ability to deal with stressors, in the short-term, all that is dependent on how much we slept the night before or a couple nights prior.
Long-term, proper sleep is imperative for maintaining control of blood pressure and blood sugar, keeping the heart healthy. Chronic sleep deprivation or chronic lack of quality sleep from disorders, such as sleep apnea, tie into issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular illness. Sleep ties into everything.
Do we treat sleep as seriously as we should?
A generation ago, doctors said, “I enjoy my such-and-such brand cigarette” and obviously we laugh at that now because it’s so ridiculous. But, I’m hoping a lack of sleep, a lack of quality sleep, will be looked at in that kind of way too.
It’s not just America – all industrialized societies. We sleep an hour a night less now than we did 100 years ago. If you look at the number one day for accidents in the United States, it’s the day after Daylight Saving. So, we’re sleeping an hour less than we did 100 years ago and we’re chopping another hour off once a year. There’s no denying lack of sleep affects our ability kind of navigate traffic and make quick decisions.
We have not evolved or developed a mechanism to deal with lack of sleep. We need the same amount of sleep we did a century ago, but we’re not getting it. The average person needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night and many people come up very short.
What can Americans do right now to improve their sleep?
The biggest thing is avoiding blue light devices. Smartphones, iPads, iPhones, computers, TVs, anything that emits blue light. That blue light signals the brain to shut off production of melatonin. Melatonin is one of the hormones that the brain makes to help initiate sleep.
All electronic devices are going to impair sleep so shutting off them half an hour before bed is a smart idea. Similarly, in the middle of the night, no checking your phone when you get up to go to bathroom – that can prevent you from getting back to sleep.
Second, get regular exercise, particularly in the morning. It’s been shown that exercise can help promote sleep at nighttime. A quick 20 minutes of raising your heart rate and sweating is all that’s needed.
Third, reduce caffeine. It’s okay in the morning, but caffeine can stay in your system for up to 10 hours, which can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Last, no falling asleep on the couch after work – that’s going to seriously impair your ability to get quality sleep at night.
What sleep hygiene rules do you always obey?
I try to be consistent, not sleeping late on the weekends, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. I also try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and exercise regularly.
On the flip side, what’s the one rule you break?
I’m an avid video game player, so unfortunately, if I’m in the middle of an intense session right before bed, I sometimes will do that right up until bedtime, which is not a good thing to do.
What role does a good mattress play?
I tell my patients that their mattress should be firm enough to support the back and the neck without being uncomfortable. The best position to sleep is on the side in the fetal position. A mattress that’s firm enough to support that position is ideal.
A quality mattress is a good investment. If yours is starting to sag or if you feel like the support is not there, it’s time to get a new one.
What’s your personal take on dreams and how can we make them work for us?
Dreams allow us to view the impossible or view the things that we wouldn’t necessarily experience otherwise. In some cases, I think that gives us inspiration to change and improve our lives. In some ways, dreams open a door to another realm of our minds that we don’t have access to otherwise.
There are some folks who talk about lucid dreaming – being aware of your dreams while you’re dreaming – and being able to do whatever you want to see and do. That doesn’t have much clinical application. There are some people who think it can be used in mental illness, but that remains to be seen.
As far as making dreams work for us, the science isn’t there yet.
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