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At two o’clock this morning I was in my living room reading a magazine, hoping to get drowsy enough to fall asleep. The last few nights my sleep schedule has been off; maybe due to drinking caffeine too late in the day, the extra naps I’ve been enjoying or the suspenseful novels I’ve been reading.

There’s a high probability that all of the above scenarios aren’t helping me to fall asleep any faster but it’s okay. I guess you could say that I’m lucky being that these causes are things that I have complete control over; I may or may not choose to change them anytime soon, but I could if this sleep problem becomes more of an issue.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have the luxury to choose better sleeping habits. Oftentimes the inability to sleep is due to other factors that aren’t so easily controlled—stress, anxiety, unsafe environments and simply having “more important” things to get done are elements in life that can hinder the amount of sleep, or at least restful sleep, that a person can experience.

Recently I was working with a group of middle school girls. I asked the class, “Are these easy for you or a challenge” as I held up  a laminated card saying the following:

GETTING APPROPRIATE AMOUNTS OF SLEEP, SUNSHINE, HEALTHY FOOD, AND EXERCISE

The assembled group of 7th graders groaned and started chattering amongst one another. Several of the comments that I heard are below:

  • What do you mean “appropriate amounts of sleep”? How much sleep are we supposed to get?
  • How do you know if you are getting good sleep?
  • Sunshine? What does that have to do with anything? Does it have something to do with sleep?
  • Are there ways to get better sleep?

I don’t remember being concerned about sleep in 7th grade.  I remember excitement for the next day’s field trip, the elation of winning a soccer game that might have kept me up a little later than I would have normally gone to bed and also the occasional sleep-over birthday party that interrupted my bedtime schedule. Sometimes I wanted to stay up late, but couldn’t. What the students were reporting felt very different than my experience…at first.

“My brother snores like crazy and we share a room…I can’t make him be quiet!”

“My mom just had another baby. The crying wakes me up.”

“There is a streetlight right outside my window. It is so bright…”

“I have to get up early every morning. I have to go to my mom’s work with her and leave for school from there. We leave our house at 5:45am.”

“I worry. I worry about money, mostly. I don’t know if my family has enough.”

“I don’t know why I can’t fall asleep. I just can’t.”

Ah…I remember now. Worry.

I recall worrying about upcoming tests and the state of my friendships…and maybe I sometimes thought about money and my future. I have to admit, listening to these young students talk about their barriers to restorative rest has since cost me a few hours of sleep.iStock_000007980637Small-1

The thing about restless nights is  that they pretty much always promote lots of thinking—now this can be considered a good or bad thing, however on this particular sleepless night, all the thinking helped me to craft this blog. The most important lessons I’ve learned about dealing with the problems of daily living are simple: figure out what things you can change, change them, and do your very best to let the rest go.

In the spirit of changing what we can, let’s look at a few quick facts:

  • Restful sleep requires a mix of REM and non-REM cycles in sync with one’s internal body clock and appropriate for their age: Teenagers need 9-10 hours of sleep per night, tend to stay up late and wake later in the morning. Children need 10 or more, and naps. An adult needs 7-8, and tends to go to bed early and wake early.
  • Sunlight, mindful movement and adequate hydration help the body in multiple ways that promote restorative sleep.
  • Caffeine consumption (soda, tea, coffee drinks, chocolate, and caffeine tablets) and spicy food disrupt Melatonin and Adenosine, chemicals that cause drowsiness.
  • The blue light and stimulation from electronic screens also interrupt our natural sleep signals. Watching TV or using the computer within a few hours of bedtime, or while you’re trying to fall asleep can have a major impact on sleep.

Adequate rest is vital for mental health, learning and overall wellness. If we don’t make good sleep a priority, we risk a multitude of health issues, including the most common problems we see in individuals with eating disorders: heart and circulatory issues, insulin resistance, obesity, mood and impulse regulation as well as anxiety and depression.  In terms of prevention, sleep is a powerhouse!

There are some quick fixes that can make a big difference in sleeping efficacy: drinking more water, taking shorter naps, limiting “screen time” in the evening, spending time outside and appropriately moving are all great starts to your path to healthy sleep.

What You Can Do: Visit www.sleepfoundation.org or www.sleepnet.com. Assess the rest you are getting. Share what you find with your loved ones. There are 84 different sleep disorders. Something you read is bound to improve the quality of your sleep.

 What You Can Do Today: Look at your own set of barriers to restful sleep. If not getting enough rest is due to stress or anxiety, talk to a trusted adult! They can help you connect to someone who can work with you on your unique mental health concerns that might be disrupting your ability to rest.

What are some things you can you change today?

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Education-SpecialistStephanie Haines, M.Ed., CHES, is the prevention education specialist at Walden Center for Education and Research. Her role is to provide prevention education to school communities including students, teachers and administrators regarding eating disorders, body image and related topics. Before joining Walden, Stephanie was a senior health educator and prevention specialist at the nonprofit organization Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) Educational Services in Newton, where she provided education to students in 50 countries about the prevention of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse.

Stephanie earned her master’s degree from Plymouth State University and her bachelor’s degree from Granite State College.

*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment. Comments are welcome, but respect for the opinions of others is encouraged.