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What's the secret to getting a good night's sleep?

Samantha Marx

How long is too long to take a nap? How can I tell if I have sleep apnea or not? What exactly is the secret to getting a good night’s sleep? If you’ve found yourself asking any of these questions before, you’re not alone. Good sleep is something we all want and need, but something we may not know how to achieve.

This week on Take Care, in part two of our interview, Dr. Orfeu Buxton answers common questions about sleep. Buxton is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, and neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Orfeu Buxton.

A nap can be a beautiful thing when it leaves you rejuvenated and energized. Other times, naps can leave you feeling groggy and grumpy. So, what’s the difference between a good nap versus a bad nap?

According to Buxton, you should not take naps if you’re having trouble sleeping at night. For those that aren’t though, he says shorter naps are often more refreshing than longer ones, and that feeling groggy after a long nap may be an indication a lack of sleep.

“It’s not so much the nap that makes us groggy, it’s that the nap makes us realize just how sleep deprived we’ve been, and maybe we need even more after that,” he says. This happens when naps are used to make up the sleep debt from the night before and “your two- or three- or four-hour nap is just catching up from a hole dug very deeply.”

Sometimes, sleep debt is accumulated because of medical issues, such as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when a constriction of the airway causes an insufficient amount of oxygen to be taken into the body. In order to deal with it, the brain has “an arousal” that causes a gasp, but also disrupts a person’s sleep.

Buxton says one misconception people have about this disorder is that anybody that snores loudly must have it, but there are more symptoms than just that.

“One way to tell is if there’s more than 20 seconds of not breathing during sleep, so if that person’s partner could check that. Other key signs are having excessive daytime sleepiness, maybe a morning headache and a very dry airway the next morning,” says Buxton.

Buxton refers to practices to get a good night’s sleep as “sleep hygiene.” His top three pieces of sleep hygiene advice are:

  1. Make sleep a priority.
  2. Reduce screen time in the hours before going to bed, “especially the blue-enriched LED screens that are in all monitors, tablets, computers and so on, especially in the hours before bed because this will disrupt the [body’s] circadian clock, make us more alert, and make us less likely to fall asleep.” Buxton points out that apps are available for download that can help dim screens and take away some of the blue light they emit.
  3. Consult your physician for sleep problems that don’t go away or change your lifestyle in order to get the best advice.

Other tips Buxton suggests to get that good night’s sleep include:

  • Try to get up around the same time every day.
  • Sleep in a cool, dark and quiet place.
  • Get as much light as possible during waking hours to synchronize your circadian clock to your local time zone.
  • Minimize drugs that disturb sleep, such as alcohol and caffeine.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Enjoy a relaxing, bedtime routine.