Bob Denny: The psychology of good sleep

Published: Friday, August 9, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 at 3:41 p.m.

Can’t sleep? Are you too tired at the end of your day, and end up falling into bed too early? Do you sometimes toss and turn, worrying about today’s problems and tomorrow’s threats? Do digestive problems, aches, pains, or discomfort bother you? Some good tips from psychology could help you get that better sleep you deserve.

I’m a licensed mental health counselor in Florida, but I’m not a sleep expert. My students at Florida Gateway College and I study what makes good sleep, from our research and from our textbook, “Psychology,” by Carole Wade and Carol Taviris.

Common sense and folk wisdom are helpful, but science has some helpful facts we can use. For instance, I’ve always heard that the sleep you get before midnight is the most important, but sleep studies show that sleep gets better and better through the night, during 45-minute sleep cycles. During these sleep cycles, the sleeper goes through four stages of deeper and deeper sleep, then ascend back to stage 1 sleep, where sleep psychologists tell us that most dreaming occurs.

With each cycle, more time is spent dreaming. Your best and longest dreams occur in the hour before waking in the morning! Science tells us that we need to sleep and dream every night, or we will suffer problems with both our mental and physical health.

What are some common sleep mistakes? If we don’t give our nightly sleep the priority that it deserves, it comes back to haunt us! Psychologists tell us that when you lose some sleep each night of the week, you can’t make it up on the weekend! Some sleep problems are easy to fix:

Just like your workspace, you need to clear your sleep space. Your bedroom should be for just for sleeping, not for watching TV, using your computer, studying, working, or paying the bills.

Don’t go to bed with unresolved thoughts. Keep a notepad by your bed. If you wake up with your mind racing, make a note and go back to sleep.

Your overall health makes a big difference. Choose healthy regular meals, and don’t go to bed too hungry or too full.

Restlessness and tension can be a problem. Get a little exercise every day, even if it’s just a short walk. Stretch before bed, and getting up in the morning.

Have a regular 8-hour sleep schedule, with a regular bedtime and regular time to wake.

Darken your bedroom. A dim night-light is okay, so you don’t stumble around or break a toe getting up in the night.

A little water before bed is okay. Don’t take too much or too little water. Limit your salt intake; it regulates water retention and metabolism.

Anxious, nervous, worried? Deal with your issues before bedtime.

Sleep is part of your overall health plan. See your doctor once a year. If sleep is a problem, your doctor can help. Melatonin is the body’s own sleep aid, produced by the pineal gland. Your doctor can prescribe melatonin or other sleep aids, if advised. You can find some foods, like turkey, that contain a natural sleep aid, tryptophan.

Sleep habits may be the easiest part of your life to improve. Take this one step closer to your destination — a healthier, happier, and fulfilled life.

Bob Denny teaches psychology and human growth and development at Florida Gateway College.

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