Office Hours: Catching Some ZZZZs

Illustration by Laura Coyle.

The act of sleeping might seem like the most natural thing in the world. At the end of the day, we grow tired, lie down, close our eyes, and drift into restful oblivion for seven or eight hours. Right?

For many of us, it’s just not that simple—which is why Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Clinic Sleep Center, and her team treat hundreds of patients each year who have trouble sleeping. An expert in sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, Collop begins by asking patients numerous questions about their sleep habits to determine whether basic changes could improve their night’s rest. While some solutions may seem obvious, it’s surprising how many people slip into routine behaviors that adversely affect their sleep, Collop says. 

“Sometimes we are able to pick up on problematic patterns that are clues to their sleep difficulties,” she says. “Do they have
a sleep disorder, or is there something else going on?”

Six Tips for Getting Better Sleep

1. Ditch the Devices.

Too many people are in the habit of monitoring a laptop, cell phone, or tablet throughout the evening, Collop says. Whether you’re working, socializing, or a combination of both, continually responding to emails, text messages, and social media is stimulating to the brain—as is the light that emanates from those screens. Collop recommends turning devices off at least an hour—or better, two—before bedtime.

2. Be Consistent.

Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from a regular bedtime. “I saw someone today who told me she goes to bed anytime between 10:00 p.m. and midnight,” Collop says. “That’s a broad range. It’s better to have a routine”—preferably going to bed and waking up within an hour of the same time each day.

3. Get Off the Treadmill.

While exercise is great for supporting quality sleep overall, physical activity revs up the heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline, and other body processes that take a while to slow back down to normal—longer for some people than others. Although a common rule is no exercise at least two hours before bed, Collop suggests that three to four hours might be a more effective window for winding down. And don’t follow an evening workout with a hot shower. “When you go to sleep, your body temperature falls, which actually aids your ability to fall asleep,” Collop says. “So a hot shower right before bed might feel relaxing, but it’s not
so good for sleep.”

4. Resist the Bedtime Snack (and Sip).

Eating high-fat-and-calorie foods shortly before bed increases your risk of acid reflux and other gastrointestinal discomforts, especially since gravity works against you when you’re horizontal and digestion slows down. When it comes to beverages, “Obviously, don’t drink anything with caffeine—I tell people after three or four in the afternoon,” Collop says. And although alcoholic drinks can help people fall asleep quickly, those who indulge before bedtime are more likely to wake up in the night and get only fitful, poor-quality sleep afterward.

5. Kill Your Television.

Okay, not really—but at least get it out of the bedroom. “The bedroom should be a place where you go to sleep, not to watch TV,” Collop says. “This is often a sticking point with couples, because for some people it’s not really a problem and for others it is. We do know that the light, noise, and content of TV are stimulating even when it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. A lot of people will fall asleep with the TV on, and then wonder why they didn’t sleep well.”

6. Bed Is for Sleeping.

If you’re not sleeping, don’t lie in bed for hours wishing you were. Part of the behavioral therapy conducted at the Emory Sleep Center is designed to help people associate bed with sleep, Collop explains, so wakeful patients are encouraged to get up and go do something relaxing—such as reading—elsewhere in the house. And when trying to fall asleep, the old remedy of counting sheep may actually work—anything that’s both progressive and monotonous can help calm the mind. Collop often suggests mentally reliving your day from the beginning, step by step, down to brushing your teeth and tying your shoes. “That gets boring pretty fast,” she says—hopefully boring enough to help you drift off to dreamland.  

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