Why do we sleep? We know it’s an essential function. We know that virtually every system in the body undergoes predictable changes during sleep. We also know sleep deprivation has devastating effects on physical, mental, and emotional health.
Yet, there are many things we don’t know about sleep. Why do we dream? What exactly goes on in the brain during the various stages of sleep? And why is it so important that we spend a third of our lives sleeping?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, and the truth is few people really care. Most of the questions I get are about the more practical aspects of sleep from individuals who are seeking answers for sleep problems. Here are a few of them.
Is It Bad to Sleep With the TV On?
Yes! You may think TV takes your mind off thoughts that keep you awake or helps you to fall asleep when someone is snoring. In reality, it diminishes both the quantity and quality of sleep.
TV noise is certainly a problem, but light is an even greater concern. Nightfall signals your internal clock that it’s time to slow down. At around 8:00–9:00 PM, your pineal gland begins secreting the hormone melatonin, which readies you for sleep—unless light throws a wrench in the works. You may think your TV isn’t very bright, but it’s bright enough to dampen melatonin release. Plus, televisions emit blue wavelengths of light, which have a particularly negative effect on melatonin secretion.
You know the guidelines for better sleep: a dark, cool room; supportive supplements such as melatonin, 3 mg 30 minutes before bedtime; and no TV or other devices in your bedroom. If you need something to turn off anxious thoughts or a busy mind, meditation, prayer, or reading before bed can help you sleep better—and are vastly superior to TV.
What's the Best Sleeping Position?
Research suggests that side sleeping has some advantages. It is generally easier on your back, especially with proper pillow support to prevent shoulder or neck pain. It makes snoring less likely. In fact, a good way to stop someone from snoring without waking them is to nudge them enough that they’ll turn from their back to their side.
Side sleeping also allows metabolic waste products that accumulate in the brain to be flushed out more effectively. Plus, if you sleep on your left side, it reduces symptoms of indigestion and acid reflux.
That said, if you are getting a good night’s sleep in a different position, stick with it.
Why Does My Throat Get Dry at Night?
A dry throat and mouth could be due to a medical condition like Sjogren’s or a side effect of certain drugs. But dryness that occurs only at night is most likely caused by breathing through your mouth while you sleep. This is often triggered by colds, allergies, or structural problems such as a deviated nasal septum that make nose breathing difficult. Mouth breathing is also more common when you sleep on your back, as noted above, and for individuals who have sleep apnea.
If you often wake up during the night and have to drink water to soothe a dry throat and mouth, talk to your doctor. All these potential underlying causes can be treated.
Why Do My Eyes Get Dry at Night?
Dry eyes at night (and during the day) are a problem for millions of people. It could be due to a surprisingly common medical condition called nocturnal lagophthalmos, which prevents the eyes from closing completely while asleep. But a more likely cause is a decline in the production or quality of tears.
You can relieve dryness with lubricating eye drops (artificial tears) and stave it off during the night by using more viscous eye gels or ointments at bedtime. There are also a number of longer-lasting natural and medical treatments for dry eyes.
One solution I suggest everyone try is fish oil. Inflammation is a factor in dry eyes, and studies show that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and improve symptoms. The suggested daily dose is 900–1,000 mg EPA+DHA. For overall eye health, I also recommend lutein and zeaxanthin, 20-40 and 4–8 mg, respectively.
What Can I Do About Night Sweats?
If you wake up during the night feeling hot and sweaty, you’re probably just overheated. Lowering the thermostat and adjusting your blankets should help. However, if you frequently awaken drenched in sweat, it’s a good idea to get to the bottom of it.
Hormonal imbalances such as menopause in women and low testosterone in men are an easily treated cause of night sweats. Medications, especially antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs, are another common culprit. More serious but rarer conditions, including hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), infections, and cancer, can also cause night sweats.
What Causes Cold Feet at Night? Why Do My Feet Feel Hot at Night?
I get a lot of questions about cold or hot feet—specifically from people who ask about wearing socks to bed and those who want to know if it’s normal to sleep with their feet outside the covers. Both of these are common, perfectly acceptable practices that help regulate your body temperature while you sleep.
Your feet are well supplied with blood vessels and warming or cooling them affects your whole body. Studies have shown that wearing socks to bed speeds up vasodilation and the distribution of body heat and can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Snaking one or both feet out from under the blankets helps keep you from overheating during the night.
Now, if you have uncomfortably hot or cold feet day and night, particularly if it is accompanied by numbness, tingling, burning, etc., talk to your doctor. You may have an underlying medical problem such as hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), anemia, poor circulation, or nerve damage that needs to be treated.
Is It Safe to Sleep on an Electric Blanket?
The general consensus is that electric blankets are safe, as long as they are in good condition and used appropriately. Potential risks include overheating, burns, and fires, but these generally occur only with improper use or outdated, damaged blankets.
There is, however, controversy over the potential dangers of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which close contact with these and other electrical devices exposes you to. Some studies have linked EMFs with multiple health risks, while other research has found no links. The jury is still out on the safety of EMFs, so I encourage you to do your own research.