“To sleep, perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub,” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Indeed, Hamlet was not alone in his struggle to sleep, according to Dr. Steve M. Scharf, director of the University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center. “Forty to 50 percent of the American population has suffered from insomnia. Eight to nine percent of men and 10 to 12 percent of women have chronic insomnia.” We should take a page from our ancestors, the great apes, Scharf says. “When the sun goes down, they make a nest and go to sleep. What do we do? We have sewing circles, TVs, computers, and dates.”
What impact does sleeplessness have on our health? We know that chronic sleep deprivation affects your ability to think, reason, control your emotions, and be attentive to things like driving. Sleep deprivation can be a risk factor for diabetes and hypertension. It may also be a risk for things like depression and anxiety disorders.
How much sleep do we need? Sleep requirements vary in the population. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep, but some will do just fine on five hours, and some need nine hours. Everyone has an optimal number of required hours.
Any favorite tricks for conking out at night? The bedroom should be reserved for sleeping and sex——it’s not a work area. Set a sleep preparation time 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime, and assume some sort of un-engaging activity——such as taking a bath, playing soft music, or reading. We are big fans of exercise but not within an hour or two of bed.
What should you do if you still can’t sleep? If, after 20 minutes, you can’t fall asleep, get out of the bedroom and resume the disengaging activity.
Do you recommend bringing props to bed—a special pillow or mask to block out the light? Having something like that with you is fine——it probably helps reduce anxiety. It’s the adult version of a baby blanket——and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Are dreams really a window into the subconscious? There are people who used to think that, during dreams, the soul wandered. We now know that memories are being thrown off, and, it is possible, that underlying desires, worries, and anxieties will come to the fore. That, however, is for a psychiatrist!