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A primer on sleep: Identifying culprits of, how to correct those restless nights

A primer on sleep: Identifying culprits of, how to correct those restless nights

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Tina Sample’s alarm buzzes at 5 a.m. each weekday, starting a marathon for the Omaha mom.

The first-grade teacher’s day is filled with shuttling kids, helping her husband with household chores and studying for her graduate school classes.

Her head usually doesn’t hit the pillow until 11:30 p.m., giving her about 5½ hours of sleep, a schedule that often leaves her dragging in the afternoon.

Lack of sleep is a problem for many people, and the time change today where we jump ahead an hour doesn’t help.

Forty-five percent of Americans say that poor or insufficient sleep affects daily activities, according to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation.

Dr. Michael Summers, director of the Nebraska Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center, said there is an increasing amount of research on the affects of insufficient sleep and disorders such as sleep apnea. That’s because of growing evidence linking inadequate sleep with diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems, said Summers, a faculty member at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Some of the latest research even explores whether there might be a possible connection between lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s.

He said insufficient sleep draws research attention also because it affects a broad range of people, from children and teens to busy parents and the elderly.

What’s keeping you awake? Some possibilities:

Sleep apnea

What: potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form that occurs when throat muscles relax. Central sleep apnea occurs when brain doesn’t send proper signals to muscles that control breathing.

Symptoms: excessive daytime sleepiness; loud snoring (more common with obstructive); episodes of breathing cessation during sleep noticed by another person; abrupt waking accompanied by shortness of breath (more common with central); waking with a dry mouth or sore throat.

Risk factors: excess weight, thicker neck; being male and older; family history; heart disorders, stroke or brain tumor.

When to see a doctor: loud snoring that disturbs your sleep or others; shortness of breath that wakes you; excessive daytime drowsiness; intermittent pauses in breathing during sleep.


What: persistent disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Symptoms: difficulty falling asleep; waking during the night or too early; not feeling rested after waking; daytime sleepiness; irritability, depression or anxiety; difficulty focusing on tasks or remembering.

Risk factors: Insomnia becomes more common as you age.

When to see a doctor: when you have difficulty functioning during the day.

Sources: Mayo Clinic; National Sleep Foundation

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Text, video: Tips for a better night's sleep

» Keep the same bedtime and wake-up time, even on the weekends. This helps regulate your body clock. 

» Find a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as reading.

» Avoid naps — especially in the afternoon.

» Exercise daily.

» Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark.

» Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening. Alcohol might make you feel drowsy but can interfere with sleep.

» Turn off the electronics. Using laptops and other such devices can make it harder for some people to fall asleep because of the type of light from the screens.

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Helping kids through the time change

Parents know that daylight saving time can throw off children’s sleep schedules, partly because it’s tough going to bed with the sun shining. Here’s how you can help the kids adjust:

» Make the bedroom darker.

» Provide a relaxing bedtime ritual, like reading a book.

» If your kids wake too early, encourage them to stay in bed and doze.

» Don’t get too frustrated. Kids generally adjust to the time change within a week.

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Sleep and the senses


Food choices before bed can affect sleep

» Tryptophan: Foods containing this could make you drowsy. Turkey is a source, along with eggs, chicken, fish and nuts.

» Skip the chili: It’s best to avoid food before bed that might upset your stomach, such as dishes that are spicy, fatty or fried.


Some evidence suggests certain aromas can interfere with sleep

» Lavender: Shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, potentially making you feel more relaxed.

» Fresh sheets: More than three-fourths of people in a recent poll said they are more excited to go to bed when the sheets smell fresh.


Your brain continues to process sounds during sleep.

» Bump in the night: Noises can cause you to wake, move and shift between stages of sleep.

» Groggy: Whether sounds disturb your sleep depends on factors such as the stage of sleep you’re in and the time of night.


Light and darkness tell your body it’s time to rest or wake up.

» Dim the lights: Consider low-wattage, incandescent lamps at your bedside.

» Sunrise: Consider using darkening curtains or shades until it’s time to wake.


The feel of your mattress, pillows, sheets and pajamas can affect the quality of your sleep.

» Mattress: It’s not necessarily better to sleep on an extra-firm mattress, so decide what’s best for you.

» Memory foam: Many people think it’s comfortable, but some materials can trap heat, making it harder to sleep during warm weather.

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» Do you need sleeping pills? Click here to read about the pros and cons.

» Is Daylight Saving Time throwing off your sleep schedule? Click here to check out these tips from a local sleep expert.

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