12/22/2013 08:31 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2014

Putting Sleep First

There is a reason the acronym I use to help people keep their lives in balance is SWEEP and not WEEPS.

Emotional expression of self

Emotional expression of self

Well, looking at it now, I guess there are two reasons:

First, because I'm not sure a word that Merriam-Webster defines as: "to cry because you are very sad," would send the right message to my patients...

And second, and way more importantly, sleep needs to come first. If we don't sleep our bodies don't recharge and restore. We have low tolerance throughout the day and we drink too much coffee! Not getting enough sleep can derail, disrupt and imbalance. I can't tell you how often a patient comes to me complaining about one problem or another and after fixing her sleep, five to 10 of the other problems she never even associated with lack of sleep (not so) magically go away.

The amount of sleep we need to function at our best differs from person to person, but for most adults seven to nine hours is our sweet spot. That doesn't mean lying in bed for eight hours, that means actually sleeping for eight hours. How can you get eight hours of sleep a night if you're only in bed for six hours? You can't, unless you're passing out on the couch or kitchen table for two hours first -- which I know a lot of you are guilty of! -- but that's not healthy either because you aren't allowing your body to complete the proper sleep cycles. Make sleep a priority!

During a good night's sleep, our body goes through several different stages of increasingly restorative sleep. These different stages are called our sleep cycle.

Sleep Cycle
Stage 1: Our eyes are closed but we hardly know that we are sleeping. We can be awoken easily and may not even realize that we have slept. (Not very good sleep.)

Stage 2: We spend approximately55 percent of the night in this stage. The heart rate slows and body temperature decreases as we prepare for deeper sleep. (Good sleep.)

Stage 3: The deepest level of sleep. We are extremely disconnected from the outside world. This sleep is extremely restorative and exponentially revives our sleep drive. (The best sleep.)

This entire process takes from 90 minutes to two hours, at which point, if your brain is still tired and willing, the process restarts. Most of the time we will only enter Stage 3 (deep sleep) twice a night, and will spend the rest of the night in the other stages and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep where our dreams are most vivid. If we don't get good, uninterrupted sleep, our bodies can't recharge!

While some of us aren't giving ourselves a chance to get enough sleep, others lie in bed unable to fall asleep and searching for answers. 10 percent of adults suffer from insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep and the inability to stay asleep when you do happen to fall asleep. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can lead to anxiety, clinical depression, and an assortment of other disorders. Sleep hygiene is particularly important for people suffering from insomnia. Sleep hygiene is all about setting up your ideal sleep environment to give yourself the best chance of getting a good night's sleep. Here are some guidelines, but remember, what works for you may not work for someone else, so tweak accordingly:

Sleep Hygiene Guidelines
1. Find a comfortable, quite place where you feel safe.
2. Turn off or dim the lights.
3. Cool the temperature to try and lower your energy level.
4. Have a routine -- go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
5. Don't consume caffeine after 2 p.m. or alcohol in the hours before bed.

Unfortunately, good sleep hygiene alone may not be enough for someone suffering from insomnia. If that's the case you may also want to try using natural supplements to help you sleep. valerian, chamomile and melatonin are three such natural sleep aids. Though their effectiveness is still mostly unproven, they may be worth a shot if nothing else is working.

The Three P's Model (introduced by Art Spiegelman in the 1980s) is another great way to understand your specific sleep problems.

Three P's Model
Predisposing Factors -- The deep-seated causes of your sleep issues.
Ex: genetics; traumatic events in your past; anxiety issues; incorrect ways you have learned to cope with not sleeping, etc.

Precipitating Factors -- Disturbances in your everyday life that keep you from sleeping.
Ex: a new baby; a job with crazy hours; illness, etc.

Perpetuating Factors -- Beliefs and ways of life that maintain or worsen your sleep problems.
Examples: personal beliefs about sleep; starting to accept not sleeping as a way of life; napping for too long during the day in an attempt to make up for lost sleep, etc.

It may be helpful for you to create your own Three P's model to identify the factors that are keeping you from getting the sleep you need to function at your best.

If nothing else, remember these four points about sleep:

1. Make sleep a priority.
Your body needs sleep to operate at its highest level. Set aside the same seven to nine hours a night for sleep. The increase in productivity you feel will more than make up for any lost late night work hours.

2. If we don't get good, uninterrupted sleep, our bodies can't recharge.
Sleep is not just lying in bed, it's going through our sleep cycles so our body can reboot. If you are a picky sleeper pay careful attention to your sleep hygiene. Find your ideal sleep environment and stick to it!

3. Create a Three P's Model for yourself to understand your sleep issues.
Predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors all contribute to why you're having trouble sleeping. Only by getting to the bottom of why you can't sleep can you begin to fix your sleep troubles.

4. You're not alone,
Ten percent of adults suffer from insomnia. If you're having trouble sleeping talk to friends or a sleep specialist. The more information the better and who knows, if it works for someone else, it might just work for you!

And what I leave you with every time: Don't forget to SWEEP!