The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: My wife says I am more forgetful because I don’t get enough sleep. I sleep 6 hours a night. But I don’t feel tired during the day and I haven’t noticed any change. What do you think?
A: I won’t get in the middle of that one. But your wife’s concern about you not getting enough sleep is supported by scientific evidence.
When people don’t get enough sleep, their attention and concentration abilities decline. Their reaction time lengthens, they’re inattentive, and they don’t respond as well to environmental signals.
Going without sleep for 48 hours impairs cognitive abilities to the same degree as having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1%, above the legal limit for driving in every state.
A lack of sleep can also contribute to a long list of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and even early death.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to get more sleep. You really can make up for lost sleep and restore focus and clarity. Aim for seven to eight hours a night.
Try the following strategies to get started.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Use your bed for sleep and sex only, block as much noise and light as possible, go to bed and wake at the same times each day, and get out of bed if you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes.
Supplement with naps. If you can’t set aside enough time for sleep at night and are sleepy during the daytime, napping can help. It’s best to take one short midday nap before 5 p.m. Naps late in the day can interfere with sleep later. If your problem is difficulty falling asleep at night, then daytime naps might not be a good strategy for you.
Exercise earlier, not later. Exercise stimulates the brain, so make sure you finish at least three hours before turning in.
Watch your diet. Avoid foods that promote heartburn, and don’t eat late at night. Ban caffeine-packed food and drinks at least six hours before bedtime. Avoid alcohol for at least two hours before bed. It may make you feel sleepy at first, but several hours later it acts like a stimulant. And don’t drink too much water before bedtime, to cut down on trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)