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Sleep Expert Secrets

A Sleep Physician Reveals 20 Expert Secrets to a Better Night's Rest

Sleep has never come easy to me — and I know I'm not alone with this issue. Whether it's waking up countless times throughout the night, getting up in the morning feeling as if I didn't sleep at all, or having trouble actually nodding off at night, I'm always looking for ways to improve my rest.

Dr. Nate Watson is a sleep specialist, past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), professor of neurology at the University of Washington, and codirector of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center. So we're going to go out on a limb and say he knows what he's talking about when it comes to sleep. He recently did an IamA on Reddit to address people's questions about how to improve their sleep habits, and his answers are so enlightening. Read on to see his helpful advice.

1. I have had issues falling asleep since I was 6. My brain wont quiet down. I am constantly thinking about something. Any tips?

"I suggest that you start a worry journal in the evening, set aside 15 minutes before you go to bed — write down your negative thoughts and then close the book, allowing you to go to bed with those thoughts on the page, not in your head."

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2. How can a person determine how much sleep they actually need?

"Adults need seven or more hours, but each person is unique. You may need nine hours a night to feel rested. Take three weeks to fall asleep when you are tired and wake up refreshed without an alarm. That should determine how much sleep you need personally."

3. Why are some humans more nocturnal and others more diurnal?

"Chronotype is the notion that some people are 'morning larks' while others are 'night owls.' Much of this is genetically determined."

4. Why is that when I'm home I have to be laying down and comfortable to fall asleep and sometimes it still takes a while, but at work I can fall asleep sitting up in a chair with background noise all around?

"Sleeping better outside of your typical home environment may indicate a problem with your home sleep environment. Check out this page for a lot of info that may help."

5. Why do we sleep?

"Much of that is yet to be determined. We do know that the spaces in the brain expand to allow clearing out of the day's thoughts — like a garbage man for the brain."

6. What are some exercises (if any) you can do to improve REM sleep or deep sleep in general?

"A hot bath before bed has been shown to increase deep non-REM sleep. Some medications can reduce REM sleep (anti-depressants)."

7. I have diagnosed sleep apnea but hate the machine (can never sleep comfortably with it). Any advice ?

"1) Make sure you are of optimal weight 2) Avoid sleeping on your back to keep nasal passages clear. These are conservative measures. Other options are oral appliances custom fabricated by a dentist. There are also surgical options from ear, nose, and throat specialists. We always recommend seeing a board-certified sleep specialist to sort this out for you."

8. Do you have any tips for napping? I don't know how long it will take me to get to sleep, so how do I know when to set an alarm?

"Just set your alarm for 10-15 min. from when you lay down so you don't wake from a deeper stage of sleep and be groggy."

9. Does length of sleep have more of an affect on a person than the actual quality of it? At what point does quality and length even out?

"The bottom line is that very few people are able to succeed and be healthy on less than seven hours of sleep per night. Many who claim to get little sleep are probably exaggerating — and if they're not, I suspect that they would be even more successful, and much healthier in the long term, if their brains and bodies were fully charged with sleep. We tend to be poor judges of our alertness level, and we underestimate how we are affected by insufficient sleep. In addition, there is a ton of data to support that not getting enough sleep puts you at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more."

10. Does this length of sleep needed to feel rested differ from person to person or do we all collectively need exactly eight hours as many are told from youth?

"While most adults need seven or more hours of sleep each night, a small percentage of people function well on less sleep. If you feel refreshed when you wake up and remain alert throughout the day without needing to take a nap, then you may be getting enough sleep. But the problem is that we tend to be poor judges of our alertness level, and we underestimate how we are affected by insufficient sleep. In addition, there is a ton of data to support that not getting enough sleep puts you at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. Try sleeping seven plus hours for a week, and I think you'll notice a more energetic, productive version of yourself that you didn't know existed."

11. Why don't I dream? Or rather why don't I remember my dreams?

"You for sure are dreaming. You only remember them if you wake from the dream. Not waking from REM sleep is good and indicates you likely have healthy sleep."

12. How does one deal with insomnia?

"If you think you may have insomnia, ask yourself the following questions: 1) Does it take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or do you wake up during the night and have trouble returning to sleep, or do you wake up earlier than desired? 2) Do you have daytime symptoms such as fatigue, moodiness, sleepiness, or reduced energy? 3) Do you give yourself enough time in bed to get at least seven hours of sleep each night? 4) Do you go to bed in a safe, dark, and quiet environment that should allow you to sleep well? If you answered 'yes' to all of these questions, then you may have insomnia."

13. Are there any ethical restrictions against conducting studies to see how long people can go without sleep beyond a certain point, and what is the cutoff, if there is one?

"Rats die after about three weeks of total sleep deprivation. This is how we know sleep is essential to life. I have seen studies of 24-36 hours of sleep deprivation, but not much longer than that."

14. Did it ever happen to you that you were dreaming and you suddenly fall out of nowhere in your dream then wake up in panic thinking you just fell?

"That's called a 'hypnic jerk' and it is normal."

How is it that I wake up almost exactly one hour before my alarm goes off?

"You are probably thinking about this before you go to bed — this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy and I recommend not looking at the clock."

15. Is sleeping on your stomach bad for you? Is there anything such as a good sleeping position that keeps pressure of certain organs?

"Sleeping position is mostly personal preference, but if you can't sleep comfortably on your back, it may be a sign of sleep apnea."

16. I seem to sleep fine, but hell am I tired constantly; what's that all about?

"There are medical causes for fatigue that you should have checked out by your doctor. This could also be an indication of a sleep disorder. Sleep and sleep disease, such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia, are increasingly recognized as vital to a wide variety of public health and chronic disease concerns, including obesity, hypertension, and cancer. Definitely make sure you getting at least seven hours, too."

17. Why do some people enjoy "white noise" while they sleep?

"There is some thought that white noise might replicate the sounds you heard in the womb — making it soothing for children and adults."

18. Have you studied lucid dreaming at all?

"It is something that you can teach yourself and it can be an exhilarating experience. Stephen Laberge has produced some excellent teaching materials. Check them out!"

19. How do you feel about taking melatonin before sleep? Sometimes when I take melatonin I will wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning no matter what time I go to sleep. Why is this?

"Melatonin is not a 'sleeping pill' per se and has never been FDA approved. If you take it, then take it at least three hours before your intended bedtime, if not sooner, to notice any effect."

20. Can I train my body to need less sleep?

"Sorry, no."

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