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Strategies for Better Sleep

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You’re getting sleepy! The problem? It’s only 2 p.m., and you are in the middle of a busy day! If it’s difficult to make it through the day, it’s time to take a look at your nighttime routine.

Although many people look at 7 to 9 hours of sleep as a luxury, it’s vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Some people who feel sleep deprived welcome the opportunity for a long weekend to just sleep in. But for parents with busy families, this can be nearly impossible until the nest is empty. Others may get enough hours of sleep, but not enough quality hours of sleep. How can you improve the quality of your sleep?

Wind down

Do you have a regular bedtime or are do you stay up late surfing the web or reading all of those emails that you didn’t get to during the day?

Do you get home in time to sit down to dinner with your family or are you reheating the leftovers? Do you work late or work out after work and miss dinner or end up going through a drive-thru?

Do you have a medical condition such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux, bruxism, pain or “busy brain” that should be addressed by a medical professional?

The next time you are turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of two in the afternoon, it might be worth taking a look at how you are spending your time at night. The body requires time to recover from the stresses of the day. The brain needs time to power down. If you aren’t able to recharge at night, the potential negative impact can be costly and even dangerous at home and at work. If you don’t have enough “carpe” in your “diem,” it may be time to change your evening routine.

Sleep positions

Back sleepers: When lying on your back, is your body relatively straight? How many pillows do you use? One is better than two, so you aren’t forcing your head into an excessively flexed position. Your back should be straight with a slight bend in your hips and knees. Some find it helpful to use a small pillow or rolled blanket under the knees. This flexed position tends to relax the back and facilitates the normal contour of the lumbar spine. Try this tonight — lie flat and focus how your back feels. Is it relaxed and comfortable? Next try placing a pillow or blanket under your knees. You will likely feel a noticeable increase in the level of relaxation in your spine.

Side sleepers: How many pillows do you use? One, two or maybe three? It is important for a side sleeper to have a pillow thick enough to keep the head in line with the rest of the body. Side sleepers can also place their legs in neutral alignment with the rest of the body by placing a pillow between the knees. And adding one more pillow in front of the body to support your top arm will provide a comfortable position for the shoulder. Try this tonight — place a pillow between your knees that is thick enough to place the legs in a neutral alignment with the rest of the body and see if you immediately feel a sense of relaxation in your spine. Or, consider investing in a body pillow, available at most department stores for around $25. These pillows are about three feet in length and quite soft and allow you to support the shoulders, legs, head and neck with one pillow. When all are combined, this position tends to allow the neck, back, shoulders and the hips to relax.

Stomach sleepers: Do you use a pillow or do you lie flat on the mattress? Some stomach sleepers want to sleep with their backs in a swayback position (the medical term is lumbar spine lordosis). Try this tonight — Use a thin pillow or no pillow under your head to keep you head and neck from straining and try a thin pillow under your stomach and pelvis to flatten out the low back and take pressure off your spine. It is important to make sure you are balanced and relaxed.

Going to the mattresses

How old is your mattress? Is it soft, hard, lumpy, sagging, stiff? If you are in the market for a new mattress, where do you start? There are so many choices on the market these days it might be hard to know which kind is just right for you. Purchasing a mattress is no small expenditure, so it is important to do your homework before making the investment.

Try before you buy: Take a test nap of sorts. Put on some comfortable exercise clothes, take your favorite pillow, your favorite music and go the local bedding store. Once you are there, you can talk over your sleeping needs with a salesperson, choose a couple of test models, lie down and relax. To give this test a fair assessment, you should consider lying on a mattress for 15 to 20 minutes. Please note that this practice is often a bit disconcerting to the bedding store staff, but they will get over it. Their displeasure will pale in comparison to yours if you chose the wrong mattress for your particular sleep needs.

Another option is to spend a night in a local hotel that has a particular type of mattress. There is a growing trend toward specialty mattresses at some hotel chains, and often times they have mattresses for sale to guests on their websites. Or, arrange to house swap with a friend or family member who has a mattress you think might work for you.

All of this planning and testing may sound a bit over the top, but making an expensive purchase such as a mattress and ending up sleeping on the couch is not an appealing, cost-effective end result. Check to see what the return policy is before you buy so you know that you have some options to return the product if you end up making the wrong choice.

Mr. Caruso is a practicing physical therapist with 30 years of experience. He has worked extensively with the dental profession in the areas of ergonomics, injury prevention, productivity, exercise and wellness and is a member of the ADA Dental Wellness Advisory Committee. He is president & co-founder of the Kids Equipment Network, a not-for-profit organization that has provided over 2,000 children with special needs adaptive equipment at no cost. Contact him at