While our bodies require around eight hours of sleep a day, 56 hours a week, and 2,920 hours a year, good, restful sleep can be a challenge unusual for many in this day and age.
The reasons can range from physiological factors such as a lack of movement, poor diet, chronic pain, hormones, and environmental elements such as light and noise, according to Dr. Mehrdad Ayati, a geriatrician and clinical instructor of medicine at Stanford University Medical Center.
"Sleep is still a mystery," he said, "but we are understanding more about its function and what factors can affect our ability to sleep."
It is a myth that sleep needs decline with age. Research suggests that our sleep needs actually remain constant throughout adulthood. Recent studies have linked poor sleep to everything from diabetes to dementia.
So what is sleep?
Sleep should be a daily restorative period in which the body repairs, the mind calms and hormones balance. Sleep occurs in multiple cycles, including dreamless periods of light and deep sleep and occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). Older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.
And how do we fix sleep problems?
A change in sleep architecture, as sleep specialists call the actual sleep structure and pattern, is the best first step to managing and treating sleep problems. To do so, one must often disrupt old habits and patterns.
"You can help yourself find your own circadian rhythm," Dr. Ayati said. "Go to bed the same time every single day -- even on weekends."
Though not a big proponent of naps, he does note that short naps of 15-20 minutes can be useful for some people. He also suggests:
• Go to bed only when sleepy, stay in bed only when asleep and get up as soon as you awaken.
• Do not bring electronics to bed with you; the light will interrupt your natural circadian rhythm.
• Exercise daily =I but== not just before bedtime.
• Meditate, pray, clear your mind -- do whatever you must to relax mentally before getting ready for bed.
• If hungry, enjoy a light snack unless you have acid reflux.
• Remove caffeine, alcohol and nicotine from your daily habits.
• Pay attention to the sounds around you and get rid of unnecessary noise and light.
• Cool your bedroom to a comfortable sleep temperature.
• If you can't sleep after 30 minutes, get up but keep lights low.
Dr. Ayati also recommends using cognitive behavioral therapy, a psycho-therapeutic approach designed to influence behaviors and perceptions by modifying mental processes. Other approaches may include bright light therapy to enhance natural melatonin production and relaxation techniques.
Prescription or over-the-counter medications may help but only as a short-term remedy since they can cause even more sleeping problems, he said.
Improving one's overall sleep architecture will increase daytime brain function and focus. It will also restore natural hormonal cycles and improve one's ability to engage with others.