How to Talk to Your Patients About Sleep (And Why You Should)

We already know that getting enough sleep supports our immune system, memory, and mental health. Adequate sleep supports a healthy weight and blood sugar levels. Now add another benefit: Sleep is an essential part of heart health, according to guidelines from the American Heart Association, updated this summer.

The AHA has updated its previous guidelines, Life’s Essential 7, which outlines the seven most important health behaviors and factors for optimal heart and brain health. For years, that list has included things like nicotine exposure, blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight. Starting this year, the AHA updated the list to Life’s Essential 8, which includes a new health behavior: sleep duration.

“Adequate sleep promotes healing, improves brain function, and reduces risk of chronic disease,” according to the new AHA guidelines.

Guideline after guideline and study after study continue to emphasize the importance of sleep for health and well-being. Along with clean air, clean water and nutritious food, sleep is a pillar of health. Take away one of these and good health is impossible.

Then why did it take us so long to realize the importance of sleep? Why have we relegated a good night’s sleep as a luxury rather than an essential part of life—essential, as the AHA has written, to heartbeat and brain function? Knowing this, how should our healthcare system deal with the subject of sleep?

I’ve researched sleep for more than 40 years and see the challenges of communicating the importance of sleep to the public — even as I’ve witnessed the tremendous health improvements people enjoy when they improve the quality and duration of their sleep. Here are five key pieces of advice for healthcare systems and providers to educate patients about the importance of sleep:

Step 1: Embrace positive public health messages

Public health messaging plays a difficult role: too often public health workers sound like the department for no fun. We tell people what not to do; We urge them to avoid doing things they enjoy (eating too much, alcohol, tobacco, etc. is bad for you) while promising you a long-term payout.

With sleep, however, we have a much more positive story to tell. Sleep provides a return the next day. The rewards are immediate, and the quality of our days depends heavily on the quality of our nights. The long-term effects are also evident – from the heart to the brain to mental health – and we can achieve a good night and a good day at a time.

Step 2: Make sleep part of the clinical review process

For heart health we see a cardiologist. For brain health, a neurologist. However, our bodies are not so properly insulated. Sleep – and lack of sleep – affects almost every aspect of our bodies and minds. Conversely, sleep – and enough of it – can improve almost every aspect of our bodies and minds.

Sleep habits must be included in the clinical review process. Both specialists and general practitioners should ask patients how much sleep they are getting, as well as taking blood pressure and other vital signs. We should not only ask patients about their days – about their diet and exercise habits – but also about their nights.

Step 3: Connect people to tools that promote healthy sleep

Even if a provider’s specialty extends beyond sleep medicine, they should have resources to educate patients about evidence-based sleep improvement techniques. Give patients a sense of control over their sleep health.

People want and value resources that help them sleep. Guide patients to evidence-based methods that can improve their sleep quality. This can include healthy sleep habits and sleep hygiene, such as: B. A consistent bedtime, keeping phones in a different room, and a quiet sleeping environment. This may include educating patients about the success of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in improving sleep quality and duration, whether through in-person therapy or digitally, e.g. B. via a digital therapeutic or evidence-based app.

It’s important to offer ways to improve sleep quality without drugs or supplements, because people who are currently taking medication for other conditions are understandably reluctant to add more — and some of these sleep aids can have side effects that interfere with the health benefits of the extra sleep . while dietary supplements are not effective.

Step 4: Recognize healthy sleep as a matter of public health equity

While some people have poor sleep quality due to bad habits, many people have poor sleep quality due to problems of socioeconomic inequality. Just as many people do not have equal access to quality health care or healthy nutrition, many people do not have access to adequate sleep: they may work night shifts and multiple jobs; They may have caring responsibilities that require 24-hour responsibility or live in a location with a noisy environment.

Talk to patients about how their lives affect sleep quality and work with them to find resources or methods that can help. Ask about her sleep and then listen carefully. The following conversation should be blame-free and solution-oriented.

Step 5: Reinforce the concept of sleep as the foundation of good health

Sleep has been an afterthought for too long, for both patients and providers. When we are short on time and need a corner to cut off, often the corner we cut off is sleep. Amid providers’ limited time with patients, it’s understandable that there’s little time to have a meaningful conversation about sleep — if we have any at all. However, it is important to reassure patients that adequate sleep is fundamental to good health. They don’t need to feel guilty about not getting enough, nor should they brag about how little they need. An open conversation between providers and patients about sleep, along with evidence-based methods that can improve sleep habits, is too important to stay around a corner that providers are clipping. The Five Principles for Healthy Sleep is a free resource to share to help your patients get started.

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