Health & Science

Sleep Scientists Reveal Best Practices For Sleepy Houstonians

Like almost everyone else in the U.S., Houstonians don't get enough sleep. Lack of sleep and sleep disorders can lead to illness and injury, but science is catching up.

Adults should get 7-8 hours of sleep, teenagers should get 9, and grade schoolers should get 10.

But most of us don’t. And we suffer the consequences.

Candice Alfano directs the Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids at the University of Houston. She appeared recently on Houston Matters:

“Not only are you more likely to get the common cold when you don’t get enough sleep, but you’re much more likely to be obese, to suffer from heart disease, to have metabolic problems, to heal less quickly if you get injured. You’re also much more likely to get injured, to get into a car crash, to show up in the ER.”

Alfano says good sleep habits begin in childhood. She says sleep is a behavior and it can be learned.

“The way we explain it to kids in our clinic is that it’s like plugging in your phone at night, otherwise if you don’t it’s going to die on you at some point the next day.”

Alfano has developed an online program to teach kids how to go to sleep, and to help their parents guide them.

Dr. Richard Castriotta directs the Sleep Disorders Center at Memorial Hermann as well as teaching sleep medicine at UT Health.

He says adults who struggle with sleep also benefit from behavioral interventions.

Those include going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, avoiding bright light and screens at least an hour before bedtime, and using focused imagery and relaxation techniques.

He says sleeping pills are not a long-term solution.

He says they’re only useful for short-term stress, like a job problem or a death.

“Under those conditions for a short period of time, a hypnotic will maybe allow the patient to get to sleep on a regular basis for a short-term and prevent that short-term insomnia from becoming a chronic long-term problem.”

Castriotta says serious sleep problems should be diagnosed in a sleep lab. He says most insurance plans will pay for an overnight study if its medically warranted.

Castriotta studies serious sleep problems like REM Behavior Disorder. That’s when sleepers scream, hit, or injure themselves while dreaming. Some of those behaviors have been linked to brain changes and even Parkinson’s Disease.