Why you need to pay more attention to sleep

By Cliff Mehrtens

Sleep studies – often done at home – can pinpoint problems

Everyone has a sleep number.

It’s the hours of sleep that make you feel refreshed when you wake up, and stay sharp all day. It may be 7 or 8 hours, which is what most adults need. Some require 9. A minority of us feel rested with 6.

Hitting your number consistently is vital to good health, ranking up there with diet and exercise.

But, routinely missing the mark creates a sleep deficiency that could increase your risk for serious, long-term problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or dementia.

Dr. Nancy Behrens


“I think many people value sleep but some don’t understand how vital it is,” Novant Health sleep specialist Dr. Nancy Behrens said. “A lot of us are staying up later working on the computer or trying to have some ‘me time.’ That’s important, but it really shouldn’t take away from your sleep because it is so important for your health.”

More than 35 percent of adults report getting less than 7 hours of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number jumps to nearly 40 percent in the 45-to-54 age group.

Most sleep studies are done at home

Novant Health’s sleep centers can help you understand what’s keeping you awake. Disruptions might be caused by obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome or narcolepsy. Tests are available that give your doctor information that can be used to identify your condition and create a treatment plan.

“There are two main types of sleep studies,” Behrens said. While many people assume a sleep study means a night away from home in a sleep center, that’s often not necessary.

“We have home sleep tests and that’s what most private insurances will cover, if we’re looking for sleep apnea.”

The patient takes a small device home that measures breathing and oxygen levels overnight. Sleep specialists analyze the data the next day. Behrens estimated 60 to 70 percent of sleep studies are done at home.

A more comprehensive in-lab sleep study has the patient spend the night at a sleep center. And Behrens said steps are taken to make the patient as comfortable as possible.

“You would have a private room,” Behrens said. “It’s like a little hotel bedroom. There’s a television to relax before bed. The technician will be there to attach the sensors, to assure that we get a quality study, and to make sure the patient is comfortable. Nothing’s invasive but we are able to monitor your brainwaves and see when you’re asleep and what stage of sleep you’re in.”

The tests also monitor breathing, leg movements and if you’re moving around acting out dreams, Behrens said.

How lack of sleep hurts you

Illuminated screens can be a roadblock to falling asleep.

Behrens said not getting adequate sleep can mean more than just feeling out of it the next day.

“Your reaction time will be slower, cognitive functioning and memory are affected,” Behrens said. “Your immune system is affected; you’re more likely to get sick.”

Long-term effects can include being at higher risk for high blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels, obesity and heart problems, Behrens said.

“Even your brain health suffers,” she said. “We’re starting to link not getting enough sleep or quality sleep over the years to higher risk for dementia as we get older.”

Tips to improve your sleep ‘hygiene’

There are factors you can control that are helpful to getting quality sleep and being alert the next day, Behrens said.

  • Allow enough time for sleep.
  • Make your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
  • Don’t sleep with the television on.
  • Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Avoid any illuminated screen, including your cellphone, in the hour before bedtime.
  • Limit alcohol intake.

“Alcohol can relax you and help you to fall asleep faster but it actually leads to poor quality sleep later in the night,” Behrens said.

At Novant Health, we are local leaders in diagnosing and treating sleep conditions for people of all ages. Our sleep doctors and their highly trained staff can study your sleep patterns and design a plan to improve the quality of your rest.