Better Sleep for Better Living
Sleep is critically important to health, but we aren’t always aware of its role in everyday life
Signs of serious sleep issues may not always be obvious; a tight, sore neck, for example, or a dull, aching jaw can signal problems with sleeping. That’s why red flags indicating you’ve got a sleep issue may be first caught by the unlikeliest of sources—your dentist.
“I’m no sleep expert, but we do work hand in hand with them,” says Dr. Scott Kirkpatrick of Door Creek Dental. He often sees patients referred by sleep specialists, and he also refers his own patients back to their primary physicians or to sleep clinics. “A patient might say, ‘My wife tells me I snore.’ Or, ‘I feel like I don’t get a full night’s sleep, I feel tired every day.’ These are some of the simpler symptoms people report.”
Kirkpatrick then looks for tell-tale signs of sleep issues, such as grinding and wear on teeth, muscle stress in the head, neck, jaw and shoulders, or airway obstructions from adenoids, tonsils, or jaw and bite positioning. He may recommend a custom oral device to reposition the lower jaw and open the airway, but generally only after patients visit the doctor to look into potential sleep issues. Because, although things like clenching and grinding are extremely damaging to teeth and lead to decay, breaking and loss, a serious sleep disorder can be deadly.
“If obstructive sleep apnea is not treated, a number of health problems may occur, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeat and heart attack, diabetes, depression and worsening of ADHD symptoms,” says Kirkpatrick. “And all of that is to say nothing of overall wellness.”
For men, sleep apnea generally starts in their 40s and 50s, as they age and gain weight. For women, it’s often in their 60s accompanying hormonal changes. Kirkpatrick says one of the most effective methods for battling sleep apnea is lifestyle changes, particularly losing weight. Avoiding alcohol and quitting smoking also play a big role, as does cutting back on coffee.
“If people are using a large amount of caffeine because they feel so tired, that can [affect] the muscles and affect sleep, too,” says Kirkpatrick. “They get caught in that cycle.”
Exercise and Sleep
Arguably one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective methods for alleviating a variety of sleep problems is getting some exercise. It helps you fall asleep quicker, sleep deeper and longer, and allows you to awaken feeling more refreshed. Exercise reduces stress and anxiety, and it eases built-up muscular tension and lactic acid. It also staves off obesity, a known link to dangerous conditions such as sleep apnea, as Kirkpatrick points out above.
“For some people, exercise alone is sufficient to overcome sleep problems,” says Sharon Baldwin, Senior Director of Healthy Living at YMCA of Dane County. “Even moderate exercise, twenty to thirty minutes just three or four times a week, will help you sleep better and give you more energy.”
Baldwin points to a Stanford University School of Medicine sleep study on adults aged 55-75 who were sedentary and troubled by insomnia. Participants were asked to exercise twenty to thirty minutes every other day by walking, doing low-impact aerobics, or riding a stationary bicycle. The overall results? The amount of time they required to fall asleep was reduced by half, and their overall sleep time increased by almost one hour.
“Exercise promotes improved sleep quality by allowing smoother and more regular transition between the cycles and phases of sleep,” says Baldwin, adding that the important thing is to choose an activity and time of day you can stick to. “Whether you can’t start the day without your morning run or you prefer to squeeze in your sweat sessions at the YMCA after a stressful workday, it’s a given that exercising at any point in the day is always better than being a couch potato.”
In addition, says Baldwin, vigorous exercise during the day and only mild exercise near bedtime will not only help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily, but will increase the amount of time you spend in deepest Stage 4 sleep. Good, regular bedtime habits can also help you beat insomnia.
“Your body needs to get ready for sleep. You want your heart rate and body temperature in a rest zone,” says Baldwin. “Both late-night exercise and eating too late sabotages your body’s urge to sleep, by raising your heart rate and temperature, which is not conducive to sleeping.”