Effective memory consolidation depends on sufficient quality 158 sleep. Although people vary widely in the amount of sleep that they need, most adults require an average of approximately seven and a half hours per night. Research suggests that six hours of sleep at night is the minimum that most people need in order to be sufficiently alert the next day to maintain optimal memory. As important as the amount of sleep you get is the quality of your sleep. If you have sleep-related breathing problems, such as obstructive sleep apnea, you can sleep for ten hours a night and still not feel refreshed in the morning. If you think that you have sleep apnea (perhaps because your partner complains that you snore), it's essential that you see your doctor and have it treated.
Insomnia (chronic sleeplessness) is the most common sleep disorder, and it becomes more common with age. Approximately one in three people will experience at least one phase of insomnia at some point in their lives. But certain sleep habits can help. I recommend the following:
• Establish and maintain a consistent sleep schedule and routine. When possible, go to bed at about the same time each night and wake up at about the same time each morning. This kind of regularity helps many people fall asleep and wake up more easily.
• Plan to exercise earlier in the day. Vigorous exercise in the hours just before bedtime can interfere with sleep. Exercising in the morning, on the other hand, enhances alertness when you need it most—at the beginning of the day—and promotes better sleep at night.
• Set the stage. Adjust the room temperature; most people find that cooler (sixty to sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit) is better than warmer. Adjust the lighting—the darker, the better. An eye shade or room-darkening blinds are helpful for some people. If you tend to stir at the slightest sound, try using white noise to mask other sounds. A fan at low speed or an inexpensive white noise generator can serve this purpose. Alternatively, there are numerous CDs and downloadable MP3s featuring all types of natural soundtracks, atmospheric "soundscapes," and trancelike music, which can be quite ,159
pleasant and relaxing. How about ninety minutes of chirping crickets? A rolling ocean? A distant thunderstorm?
• Avoid coffee and other sources of caffeine (including many types of tea and soft drinks, some brands of aspirin, and chocolate) after midmorning. The stimulating effect of caffeine can last for many hours and interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night. Caffeine is also a diuretic, which will increase urinary frequency.
• Limit alcohol use. Alcohol can disrupt brain electrical activity and undermine normal sleep architecture by suppressing the rapid eye movement stage of sleep.
• Avoid or limit naps. Napping can disrupt your natural sleep cycle and prevent you from feeling tired enough to fall asleep when you really want to—at night. If you must nap, make it a brief (thirty minutes or less) "power nap."
• Try drinking something hot, such as a cozy cup of chamomile tea or a glass of warm milk (preferably skim or 1 percent fat). Milk contains L-tryptophan, an amino acid that can help you relax.
• Don't try to force sleep if you're not tired; you'll set yourself up for tossing and turning. If you're still awake after twenty minutes or so, get out of bed and do something quiet and nonstimulating. Return to bed when you feel sleepy.
• Find your path to a relaxed state. For some people, ten minutes of reading or television will invite dozing. For others, the opposite is true. A warm bath, a massage, listening to sports radio—consider the many possibilities.
• Review your medications. Some over-the-counter drugs contain stimulants, such as caffeine or pseudoephedrine; a number of prescription medications can interfere with sleep as well. Review your medications with your doctor. Frequently, a simple change in your medication-taking schedule can solve the problem.
If your sleep problems persist, talk to your doctor. You might 160, have a treatable underlying illness that's interfering with your sleep, such as obstructive sleep apnea or depression. Sleeping medications should be used as sparingly as possible and always under your doctor's guidance.
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