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  April 9, 2001

Health Center Expert Offers Rx
for Better Night's Sleep

An extra hour of daylight in the evening is a welcome sign of spring, but according to sleep expert Daniel McNally, there's a price to pay.

"Moving the clock ahead for daylight savings time is more stressful and actually harder on the sleep cycle than the time change that takes place in the fall," says McNally, director of the Sleep Disorder Center at the UConn Health Center.

"Our biological clocks want to go forward - to go to sleep a bit later and get up a bit later every day - but the spring change means it's the other way around; we lose an hour's sleep."

"Getting up an hour earlier in reality but at the same time by the clock will be tough for some. The only consolation is that there's more opportunity for light in the day, and most individuals with seasonal affective disorder will feel better."

In general, says McNally, most of us are sleep deprived. "We have learned to function with less sleep - we've adapted to a shorter sleep cycle - but it's not good for us," he said. "Biologically, most of us need between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. Anything less is not enough."

For the occasional bouts of insomnia, McNally says the less you worry about not being able to sleep the more likely you are to fall asleep.

He doesn't recommend sleeping pills or products designed to take at bedtime.

You may sleep, he says, but you won't help your sleep system work better over the long term. One or two nights of tossing and turning will certainly make you feel tired the next day, but, unless there's an underlying medical or psychological problem, you are likely to sleep well the next night.

"Accept the occasional bad night," McNally says. "If you stop worrying about not sleeping, you just might fall asleep."

As for the occasional late evening out, McNally says you can catch up the next night, but that's as far as it goes. "You can't expect to stay up late night after night and catch up on the weekend. Your body can't store sleep."

So, if the sandman seems to skip your house, here is McNally's 'prescription for sleep':

  • Avoid alcohol, especially in the evening. Alcohol can make you sleepier initially but will fragment and disrupt your later night's sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, especially in the evening.
  • Don't eat, read or watch TV in the bedroom. These activities confuse your sleeping brain and weaken the association you should build between your bed and sleep.
  • Make sure there is nothing to disturb your sleep. Don't keep pets in the bedroom; keep the blinds drawn at night; and remove anything else that might cause noise or disruption.
  • Make sure you are comfortable - the mattress and the temperature should be appropriate. Too warm a temperature at bedtime may actually hinder sleep, and exercise, which warms you up, or hot showers right before bed, may be counterproductive.
  • If after 20 minutes in bed you have not fallen asleep, leave the bedroom and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy and then return to bed. Repeat as many times as necessary.
  • Don't nap during the day or lie around in bed in the morning.
  • Try to get out into the sunlight, especially in the morning when you wake up. This helps keep your biological sleep clock in good order and may make it easier to sleep at night.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This consistency is particularly important in the morning, when a fixed time of awakening, coupled with good, bright light, can help keep your sleep regular.

Jane Shaskan

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