Catching some Z’s

Sleep specialist says a good night’s rest can heal the body and mind

Screen time before bed can disrupt sleep.

Screen time before bed can disrupt sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep has always been a cornerstone of a healthy life, but between busy schedules, mental stressors and other health issues, Americans often struggle to get proper rest.

“In ancient cultures, sleep was celebrated through rituals. Sleeping was a natural process, in harmony with light and nature. But today, sleep is often demonized,” said neurologist and sleep specialist Dr. Mehrdad Razavi.

Roughly 30 percent of the general population complains of sleep disruption, according to the National Institute of Health, and over 50 million Americans suffer from various sleep disorders, although many go undiagnosed. Annually, these issues cost individuals, businesses and health insurance providers approximately $100 billion in lost productivity, medical expenses and sick leave. And each day, millions of people show up to work tired and fatigued, reaching for the likes of caffeine and sugar to provide temporary energy boosts.

“People who want to sleep a lot are sometimes considered lazy, while a lot of super ambitious folks are sleep-deprived,” Razavi said. “But nature would not make sleep if it didn’t have a significant higher purpose, which is to heal the body and mind.”

In 2010, Razavi founded Innovative Sleep Centers, a medical practice focused on diagnosing and treating sleep disorders through sleep studies. The Chico location serves between 3,000 and 5,000 people with various sleep issues, the most common being insufficient sleep syndrome, insomnia, sleep apnea and parasomnias.

Razavi stresses the importance of prioritizing sleep as part of a holistic approach to health, and says adults should aim to get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. As a healing process, sleep repairs myriad internal systems, from mending heart and blood vessels, to balancing hormones, to supporting healthy growth and development. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, when we continually interrupt this process, we increase our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and obesity, among other issues.

The link between mental health and sleep is strong, too. While insufficient sleep undoubtedly increases irritability and limits mental clarity, it also can contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders. Treating a sleep disorder can then alleviate symptoms of a simultaneously occurring mental issue, according to a report from Harvard Medical School.

The good news is that there are simple and effective ways to reduce—and possibly even eliminate—some sleep issues without medical intervention. Razavi suggests establishing good sleep hygiene, which refers to the habits and environments we create to improve our quality of sleep. He says that eating dinner early (three to four hours before bed), is one of the most important things you can do. “That way your body doesn’t have to focus on digestion right before bedtime.” Reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol intake before bed is another crucial habit to develop.

Dr. Mehrdad Razavi

“Establishing a calming nighttime routine can also help get the body ready for sleep,” said local therapist and clinical social worker Teresa Richman. She often suggests her clients find a simple, soothing routine that they can rely on, such as reading a book, listening to soft music or meditating.

“In many ways, our bodies are programmable,” she said. “If we do these same things every night, we can train the body to get better sleep.”

Creating the proper environment is another important element of good sleep hygiene. Richman and Razavi suggest keeping the bedroom lighting dark, with cool to moderate temperatures (around 67 degrees), while sleeping on a firm, dust-free mattress. “The bedroom should be just for sleep,” Razavi said, so make sure to keep the work and play activities in a different space.

“And reduce the use of screen time before bed,” said Richman, as the blue light emitted from phones and televisions suppresses the production of melatonin more than any other light. This in turn disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, the natural internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

Razavi also recommends minimizing the dependency on sleep medications and supplements, including cannabidiol (CBD), which has seen a recent spike in popularity due to its claim of curbing pain, anxiety and sleep issues. “I don’t condone or oppose CBD. Can you use it as a last resort? Sure. There is a time and place for it. But it’s not a substitute for natural sleep.”

While good sleep hygiene can significantly improve an individual’s quality of sleep, some disorders may require additional support and a proper diagnosis from a medical professional. Sleep apnea (difficulty breathing during sleep) is commonly treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask that keeps the airway open during sleep. Oral appliances, retraining facial muscles and surgery are alternatives.

For those who suffer from insomnia (the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep), cognitive behavior therapy may be beneficial in conjunction with good sleep hygiene, as it replaces thoughts and behaviors that hinder sleep with those that help promote quality rest.

Regardless of the sleep issue, experts agree that a mindful consideration of one’s habits and behaviors is crucial for developing healthy, natural sleeping routines that will be most effective in the long run.

“You are your best healer,” Razavi said. “Just get out of the way and let nature do its thing. It knows what to do.”