The amount of sleep individuals need can range from five to nine hours, but most of us require seven or eight hours a night. Problems occur when we find it hard to fall asleep, wake up often during the night or awaken too early, resulting in fatigue during the day.
Stress, anxiety, fear, painful medical conditions and certain prescription drugs can contribute to insomnia, causing racing thoughts that prevent relaxation. Insomnia leads to reduced concentration and slowed reaction time, poor driving performance and accidents. Sleep loss can also increase irritability, depression and the effects of even a small amount of alcohol.
Sleep occurs in various stages, starting with light sleep. As we progress into deeper sleep, our brain activity slows. About 90 minutes in, we experience “REM” (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this stage our brain waves, heart rate and muscles become more active and most dreaming occurs. Many experts think deprivation of REM sleep is the most harmful aspect of insomnia.
Insomnia speeds up aging and can worsen chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. In addition, it can lower the immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease, and can affect metabolic activities such as the processing and storing of carbohydrates, the regulation of hormones and the maintenance of healthy blood sugar levels.
To create the best environment for sleep, try relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation and focusing your thoughts on something pleasant. Soothing music and a warm drink like milk or cocoa may help you relax, as will a comfortable mattress, quiet and darkness. Ear plugs and/or a machines that create “white noise” are helpful options. It’s important to avoid daytime naps, stick to a bedtime schedule and get enough exercise. Reducing the amount of caffeine, food, alcohol and nicotine we consume in the evening can also improve sleep quality.
—Diane Barnet is a registered nurse and avid RVer who has traveled in 48 states. She is currently a Texas resident but has also resided in Maryland, Massachusetts and California.