Sleep plays a crucial role in one’s physical and mental health. When a person experiences sleep deprivation, attention span and reaction time are impaired, and there is a greater risk of worsening moods, along with injury and adverse health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weight gain. Here, John Winkelman, MD, PhD, chief of the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program in the Mass General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, shares an overview of common sleep problems and hints for getting the best night’s rest.

Common issues that can produce or worsen insomnia:

  • Inconsistent bedtimes and wake times
Not having a regular sleep schedule disrupts our internal clock, producing what is called “social jet leg.” Although you haven’t gone anywhere, if you sleep 2 to 4 hours longer on weekends than you do on weekdays, it is as though you have traveled to a different time zone. Regular bedtimes—and especially regular wake times—are key to getting the best sleep.
  • Trying to go to sleep too early
You have to be awake for a minimum of 16 hours before you are going to be sleepy. Think of it like an hourglass. When you wake up, you flip the hourglass and as the sand falls you are building up your sleep drive. You should only go to sleep when all the sand has gone from the top of the hourglass to the bottom (which takes 16 hours)
  • Excessive time in bed squeezing out more sleep
If you can only sleep 7 to 8 hours, spending 10 hours in bed can be a waste of time and prove to be very frustrating.
  • Dozing in the evening before bed
Dozing in the evening is going to interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night. It affects the sleep drive and essentially flips the hourglass back so the sand that is approaching that 16-hour mark goes back into the top. I call this a “sleep snack.” If you are about to have a big meal at a nice restaurant, the last thing you want to do is go to a fast food establishment two hours earlier and have a cheeseburger and some chips because then when you get to the restaurant, there won’t be any “hunger” for sleep.

Helpful hints to get the best sleep:

  • Try to get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep nightly
  • Avoid alcohol within 5 hours of bedtime and caffeine after noon
  • Keep electronics out of the bedroom
  • Only try to sleep if you are sleepy. It doesn’t make sense to get into bed and try to sleep if you are not sleepy. It is only going to make you upset, frustrated and produce insomnia-phobia–the fear that you are not going to get a good night’s rest
  • If you are up at night and your mind is racing, it is best to try relaxing and distracting activities rather than trying to lie in bed and force sleep for the rest of the night, which generally doesn’t work. Try reading, doing puzzles, or listening to a podcast or the sound of waves or rain
  • If you have loud snoring, leg kicking, acting out dreams, or excessive daytime sleepiness, you should consult your primary care physician to get an evaluation for a sleep disorder
  • If you are having chronic sleep problems such as insomnia, you should talk to your primary care physician who may refer you to a sleep specialist