A Doctor’s Prescription for Sleep

Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to fall asleep? Stay asleep? And why is sleep so important, anyway?

Sleep, like breathing and eating, is a basic human need. When we sleep, our bodies rest but our brains remain active. Most people require 7-9 hours of sleep a night to function well the next day, but many recent studies indicate that the average 30-to-60-year-old woman sleeps only six hours a night during the workweek.

Sleep studies show women are more likely than men to have difficulty falling and staying asleep. In addition, they often experience more daytime sleepiness, more problems concentrating and an increased likelihood of getting sick and gaining weight.

What can you do to establish healthier sleep habits?


On weekends or days off, try to keep your bedtime and wake time as close as possible to your workday schedule.



Some people metabolize caffeine slowly. It can linger 8-10 hours in the system.



Make your bedroom dark and cool and turn off your electronic devices one hour before bed. The LED light has been proven to interfere with people’s sleep patterns.



Morning exercise can help promote healthy sleep. Evening exercise can raise endorphin/serotonin levels and thereby interfere with sleep.
Sometimes women begin to have sleepless nights associated with menstruation, pregnancy or menopause, and thus establish poor sleep habits that stick around and are hard to banish. There have been many studies linking hormonal changes to poor sleep habits—let alone having young children!

So, what if you’ve made these adjustments and you still can’t sleep?

Talk to your doctor.

She might recommend an over-the-counter medication such as melatonin, Tylenol PM or Advil PM. (All “PM” formulations include Benadryl, the active ingredient which induces sleep). Herbal supplements (such as melatonin), might work for you, but they may also interfere with other medications you are taking. Be sure to discuss any supplements with your doctor. Also note, the over-the-counter medications tend tend to give people a “hangover” if they’re not taken early enough to allow for a full 7-8 hours sleep—so don’t pop a pill midway through the night.

If the OTC medications are not working, you can discuss a short course of prescription sleeping pills with your doctor. Sleeping pills are generally safe if taken as directed and used for a short course, as per your doctor. For example, I tell my patients if they go for 2-3 nights without sleeping well, they should take a sleeping pill (such as Ambien). I ask patients to try not to take the sleeping pills more than 2-3 times a week so as to prevent drug dependence.


Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines that need to naturally increase when you have an infection. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective proteins. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep. So your mom was right when she told you to get your rest.

Last year, Time magazine ran a great article clearly outlining the direct correlation between sleep and sickness.

In addition to keeping you safe from the common cold, getting enough sleep on a regular basis is an important way to protect the health of your heart. Poor or insufficient sleep is associated with a range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, heart attack and heart failure.


An interesting new development in the world of sleep is the relationship between lack of sleep and gaining weight. This has a lot to do with our nightly hormones, which are produced in fat cells when we sleep. The two hormones that are key in this process are ghrelin and leptin.

Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you when to eat. When you are sleep-deprived, you have more ghrelin in your bloodstream. Leptin is the hormone that tells you to stop eating. When you are sleep deprived, you have less leptin. More ghrelin plus less leptin equals weight gain.

The National Institute of Health is conducting ongoing studies of the link between sleep deprivation and obesity.

After reviewing the current medical studies, it becomes obvious that sleep is not only helpful in maintaining our clear thought processes for work the next morning, it is also vital for our health, wellness and weight control. Sleep on that!

For more from Dr. Nancy Simpkins, read her recent columns on the site or visit her online at nancysimpkinsmd.com.

Ben Kruger