'I'm a Sleep Doctor. Here Are 5 Tips to Sleep Well'

I didn't mean to be a sleep doctor. When I decided to become a physician in the third grade, I assumed I would be a cardiologist since I could easily draw a diagram of the heart without looking. I felt confident this would be my ticket to medical school.

By the time I began my undergraduate studies, the desire to study medicine was still intact, but I liked it all. My course was changed forever when I met a physician who needed assistance with sleep research, and halfway through his pitch, I was hooked. Brainwaves, neurotransmitters, dreams, and pigs. The research involved studying the sleep and breathing of Yucatan micro pigs and one of my first jobs was buying lard at Walmart to help fatten them up. The field was largely unexplored and wide open.

From that point forward, the next 28 years spent getting my medical degree, becoming a neurologist and specialist, and practicing sleep medicine have been extremely rewarding. It has been filled with progress made by my patients and in the field of sleep medicine.

Progress, however, has been redefined for many in the last seven months. I could use a flat tire analogy, but 2020 has been more like the entire transmission dropping out of the car onto the road. In a matter of weeks, life as we know it was turned upside down creating tragedy, mass confusion, unimaginable hardships, and divisiveness. Prior to 2020, my biggest concern was why Duran Duran was not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent carnage in its wake have left virtually all Americans negatively affected in some way or another. My patients' anxiety has never been higher.

And anxiety is relevant if you work in a sleep clinic. Like fire needs oxygen, many sleep problems—like insomnia—thrive on anxiety. Questions such as: "Will my kids actually go to school?", "do I have a job and source of income for my family?", "will I keep my home and business?" or "how can I protect myself and my family from an illness when leaders convey a never-ending series of mixed messages?" can act as the fuel and ruin perfectly good opportunities for sleep. So, how does one begin to fix the sleep of someone whose anxiety speedometer is redlining?

First, here is some good news. Tip 1: Everyone sleeps. It's a biological, primary drive. No one reading this article is in danger of never sleeping again. On a daily basis, I have the privilege of working with all kinds of patients. One of the first things many people say to me is something along the lines of, "I've been taking a sleeping pill for months (or years, or even decades). I can't sleep without it."

So this leads me to...Tip 2: Everyone is capable of sleeping without a sleeping pill. They are a temporary solution, and controlled studies have shown that they are pretty ineffective in curing insomnia. If you don't believe me, that's okay. You can always call the doctor prescribing the pills and ask them the simple question— "Is the pill you have been giving me absolutely necessary for sleep?"

Sleep, sleep doctor, sleep tips
Getty/iStock

But how do we get control of a situation that's out of control? One of the biggest problems facing people's sleep is our loss of routine during this pandemic. Now, my home, workplace, children's schools and university, the gym, our favorite restaurant, and current vacation hotspots are all in the same house. We no longer go anywhere.

We don't need to get up and take the kids to school. They are learning trigonometry in bed at 10am. Many of us are no longer commuting to work. We literally wake up in the conference room. And once work gets going, there is little stopping us from a two hour nap in between Zoom meetings or eating lunch at 4pm. Unfortunately, all of these activities play a vital role with helping our brain understand when it is time to sleep

If sleep is currently a struggle, lack of control is often at the core of the problem. You are in bed. It's midnight, and you are still awake. For some people, this is of little concern. For others, including many of my clients, it is a frustrating and helpless experience.

So here is Tip 3: Work to re-establish a set wake up time, and continue this on weekends too. Create a routine for meals, an exercise schedule, and eliminate random napping. These are changes I recommend to my clients and they are a huge step in the direction of better sleep.

In between your newly scheduled meals and outdoor socially distanced exercise class, learning new coping strategies for stress can benefit us all. That is Tip 4: Imagine yourself waking up tonight in the middle of the night, and not going back to sleep immediately. How does that scenario make you feel? Can you learn to accept it? Could you learn to embrace it, perhaps meditate through it and eventually even enjoy it?

It is tough not to hyper focus on sleep. News about sleep, and the dangers of not getting enough, is everywhere. And it's true, sleep deprivation is not healthy. Keep in mind that insomnia, or having trouble initiating or maintaining sleep is not the same as sleep deprivation. People who are sleep deprived tend to have the opposite problem—they struggle to stay awake!

Sleep, sleep doctor, sleep tips
Dr. Christopher Winter is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist. Jen Fariello

When you read articles about sleep deprivation, remember that these pieces are generally geared towards the type of individuals sacrificing sleep to work two jobs or parents whose schedules are so chaotic thanks to their kids' sleep patterns, they cannot get enough themselves. It's worth taking time to honestly evaluate your habits, lifestyle and patterns when it comes to sleep.

So in a time when everyone seems to be defined by their position on a series of spectrums, I suppose I'll add another to the mix; the sleep spectrum. This is Tip 5: My advice to everyone is to be in the middle of that spectrum.

Value sleep. Respect sleep. Prioritize sleep. If you are someone who thinks you're "fine" getting three to four hours of sleep at night, I'm afraid you're wrong. Just because you are capable of doing that does not mean you should. But don't be scared of not getting it. When sleep goes sideways, and if you are a human, from time to time it will, do not panic or be scared by the situation.

The ship will right itself again. Sleep always wins.

Dr. Christopher Winter is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist. He currently works with numerous professional sports organizations and military groups to help performance optimization through improved sleep. He is the author of The Sleep Solution: How Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It, and his second book A Rested Child will be released this spring. Dr. Winter is a member of the American Sleep Association.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.