How to Sleep Your Way to Better Health

Techniques to get enough sleep to rejuvenate your body

Jeffrey Greeson offered tips and techniques for better sleep at a free seminar sponsored by DukeWell. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Jeffrey Greeson offered tips and techniques for better sleep at a free seminar sponsored by DukeWell. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

If your mind races for more than 15 to 30 minutes after your head hits the pillow, consider incorporating a worry journal into your bedtime ritual. 

Writing down worries is a way of honoring important thoughts, said Jeffrey Greeson, a Duke health psychologist. 

"But they don't need to keep you from getting the sleep you need," Greeson said. "Sleep is as important as food and exercise to our health."

Greeson recently presented "Sleep Your Way to Better Health," a seminar sponsored by DukeWell, Duke's disease management program. Throughout the year, DukeWell presents monthly seminars on health and wellness topics at no charge to Duke staff and faculty and the general public. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 40 million Americans report getting by on less than seven to nine hours of sleep per night, the recommended amount for adults. Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of heart attack by 50 percent and quadruple the risk of stroke in people older than 45, Greeson said. Not enough sleep can also alter effectiveness of vaccines because of immune system suppression. 

In addition to keeping a worry journal, Greeson offered several other techniques to improve the chances of a full night's sleep.  

Maintain a sleep log. Noting when you go to bed and fall asleep, as well as how many times you wake during a night, can help pinpoint where to focus improvement efforts, Greeson said. Sleep experts suggest aiming for sleeping at least 85 percent of time in bed. 

"If you are taking more than 15 to 30 minutes to fall asleep after turning out the lights or waking in the middle of the night and are unable to fall back asleep, these are areas to focus on," Greeson said.

Create a relaxing routine. A bedtime routine that relaxes mind and body before sleep can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. Greeson said simple practices like deep abdominal breathing can invoke the body's relaxation response. 

Set the right tone. Our bodies evolved to sleep during night when it's dark, cool and quiet. A room for sleeping should be associated with rest and relaxation. Keep watch on the thermometer: the best sleep temperature is between 68 to 72 degrees.

Calm the mind. Cultivating mindfulness - the practice of sitting quietly and simply noting present thoughts and senses without judging whether they are good or bad - is an effective way to help the mind let go of mental chatter. "Sometimes the way to control worries is to stop trying to control them," Greeson said. "It's like tug-of-war. When one side drops the rope, the war is over."

Unplug from technology. Greeson advocates unplugging from TVs, computers, smartphones - all producers of "blue light" - at least 45 minutes before bedtime. "Technology often intrudes upon the sleep/wake cycle," Greeson said. "We decide to check the weather forecast one more time, or respond to one more text, and then we get re-engaged and another hour of our sleep time has evaporated. Like coffee or intense exercise right before bed, technology brightens the brain when you should be dimming it." 

Tina Watkins, staff assistant at the Duke Eye Center, and her 19-year-old daughter, TeddiJo, attended the DukeWell seminar for pointers on better sleep habits. 

Watkins said hearing an expert explain the importance of detaching from technology made an impact on her daughter. For herself, Watkins finds the idea of incorporating mindfulness practices into her day intriguing. Watkins has registered both of them for upcoming DukeWell seminars on meditation and stress relief. 

"It's incredible to be able to hear experts talk on these topics at no charge," Watkins said. "It's a fantastic benefit of being at Duke."