Just like wakefulness, sleep is a state of being. Sleep is characterized by a decreased level of consciousness and a decreased ability to respond to external stimuli. Sleep is not just about resting, it’s required by all mammals in order to function properly and stay healthy.

During sleep the brain remains very active in a process that ensures memories are properly stored, and it leaves you ready to learn and perform mental tasks the following day. Similarly, sleep has reparative properties on other organs and systems in your body. The amount of sleep required varies by age. In general, adults require between 7 and 8 hours of sleep. Children and teenagers need more sleep than adults, but, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that adults require less sleep as they get older, although sleeping problems do tend to occur more frequently in the elderly.

Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can have a negative impact not only on your mood but also on your performance at work or school and most importantly on your overall health. Poor sleep can even impair your ability to safely drive a vehicle. Unfortunately, sleep disorders are common and carry a significant health and economic burden due to the cost of treatment and lost productivity. Insomnia and sleep-disordered breathing (sleep apnea) are some of the most common sleep disorders.

Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Generally speaking, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep. The causes of insomnia are varied, but poor sleeping habits are usually the main culprits. Practicing good sleeping habits, known as sleep hygiene, is usually all that is needed to overcome mild cases of occasional insomnia.

The following are tips to help you achieve a reparative and effective sleep.

Avoid coffee, caffeinated drinks and nicotine in the afternoon (Remember, most teas also contain caffeine.).

Avoid watching TV or using your laptop in the bedroom.

Do not eat heavy meals 2 hours prior to bedtime.

Limit naps to 20 minutes and, if possible, avoid napping in the afternoon altogether.

Avoid any mentally stimulating activities prior to bedtime (e.g., catching up with work); instead practice a relaxing activity prior to heading to bed.

Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool during night time.

Avoid exercising late in the afternoon.

Keep the same sleep schedule. Try going to bed and waking up around the same time every day, even on weekends.

If, despite following these recommendations, you continue to experience problems sleeping, ask your family physician or a sleep specialist for help.

Unlike insomnia, sleep apnea always requires an evaluation by a physician for diagnosis and appropriate management. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive. Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by a frequent and repetitive blockage of the upper airway and breathing pauses during sleep, which leads to absent or decreased airflow into the lungs. The symptoms of sleep apnea include falling asleep easily and/or at inappropriate times, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating and waking up feeling tired. Patients with sleep apnea exhibit loud snoring, snorting, and gasping and/or choking sounds during sleep. Besides affecting your mood and sense of well-being, if left untreated sleep apnea can have serious deleterious effects in your overall health. It is associated with an increased risk of stroke, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea can’t be diagnosed during a routine office visit or with a simple blood test; the only way to accurately diagnose sleep apnea is by performing an overnight sleep study in a sleep lab. Fortunately, with appropriate treatment the symptoms of sleep apnea can subside and health risks are minimized. The most common and effective treatment involves the use of a breathing device at night that prevents obstruction of the upper airway.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, your family physician or a sleep specialist can help. For more information about sleep disorders, visit the National Institutes of Health website at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/sleep

Gerardo Garza, M.D.