Tips to keep the family on a healthy sleep pattern and why catching enough Zs is so important.

Do you recall swatting at your alarm clock or smartphone as it buzzes you awake far too early in the morning the first day back to work after a long vacation? Did you feel miserably tired coaxing your kids to get dressed while they complained that they were just too exhausted to go to school? Did you stop and think that going to bed so late the night before was a mistake?

As we enjoy summer, it is important to remember our health. Even though our family’s schedule may feel “relaxed,” our bodies still need to have sufficient quality sleep to remain healthy. Everyone can benefit from good sleep practices and a proper bedtime routine year-round as a means to ensuring adequate sleep each night.

What is a healthy bedtime?

Different age groups require a different number of hours of sleep each night, ranging from more than 15 hours for infants to seven to nine hours for adults, including seniors. The times families choose to have kids and adults go to bed varies considerably depending on daylight hours, social circumstances, work obligations and personal preferences.

Why is it important to stick to a healthy bedtime?

There are significant health benefits to staying within about an hour of a set bedtime and wake-up time on most days. The reason for this phenomenon is that our bodies and brains become accustomed to sleep and wake cycles. The more disruptions that occur, the more likely we are to have fatigue, headache, daytime drowsiness, poor memory, moodiness, etc. These symptoms are commonly seen in people with extreme schedule changes in such cases as jet-lag or revolving shift-work. However, they can occur almost daily in adults and kids that have highly variable bedtime habits.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of greater likelihoods of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, frequent mental distress and even death for those of us getting insufficient sleep. For children and adults that do get sufficient sleep, they benefit from better performance at work and school, less mental illness, improved physical stamina, fewer colds and infections and an overall higher quality of life.

How can I establish a healthy bedtime?

With our busy schedules, it is important that we set aside enough hours to sleep. For example, having to wake up at 7 a.m. would mean that most people ought to fall asleep between 10 p.m. to midnight to get the requisite seven to nine hours. Many of us have trouble “shutting-off” immediately after lying down and turning off the lights.

Preparing our bodies to sleep can help us to adhere to our desired bedtime and take full advantage of the time we allotted ourselves to sleep. Backlit screens from phones, computers and televisions tend to stimulate the brain and can keep us awake longer. Turning off the television and reaching for a book or magazine would be a good alternative. If you just can’t do without your smartphone in bed, set an alarm and after 20 minutes, put it down.

Regular exercise is another way to help our bodies prepare for sleep and improve insomnia. Likewise, avoiding excessive caffeine and stimulants right before bedtime allows our bodies to wind down for sleep, as these agents last for hours circulating in our blood and can keep us up until they are metabolized.

While many people instinctively reach for sleeping pills, medications or alcohol when they can’t fall asleep, these substances do not prepare the body well for a quality night’s rest. Most sleeping pills and alcohol interrupt the brain’s usual sleep patterns. Similar to any other disruptions to our sleep patterns, occasional use of sleeping pills will likely have fewer long-term health consequences. While there is less risk of sleep disturbances in healthy adults consuming two or fewer alcoholic beverages daily, even this amount can affect some individuals, especially if they are consumed immediately before lying down to bed. If you are going to indulge, do so in moderation and avoid falling asleep intoxicated.

What should I do to treat sleeping problems?

More than one-third of Americans do not get enough sleep each night for a variety of reasons. Given the enormous impact it can have on health and quality of life, it is an important medical issue that should be discussed with your family’s doctor. Furthermore, there are a variety of serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and obstructive sleep apnea that can cause problems sleeping that should be addressed with a qualified physician.

Aaron M. Shupp, M.D., served as Chief Resident Physician for Southern Colorado Family Medicine Resident Program in Pueblo, Colorado, and has joined Broomfield Family Practice in Broomfield, Colorado, starting summer 2016 offering pediatric, adult medicine and obstetric services. He is on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He has dedicated his career to serving as both a health care provider and a community advocate.