Doctor: It doesn't have to be a sleepless summer

SEATTLE - Summer officially begins this weekend, but Seattleite Angela Sipes isn't celebrating. She predicts the change in season will lead to many sleepless nights.

"The sunlight lasting longer makes for some real problems for my body," Sipes says. "On top of that add the occasional heat and mugginess, and forget it! Summer means groggy mornings and headaches."

Sipes isn't the only one facing summer sleep struggles. Dr. Christina Darby, of Virginia Mason Medical Center, says light can have a significant impact on a person's sleep, keeping them up later and preventing the secretion of melatonin, a hormone which regulates the sleep cycle.

According to a recent report by the New York Times, sleep deprivation can affect the heart, lungs and kidneys; immune function and disease resistance; mood; and brain function and can even reduce a person's life span. Darby says the sleepless can also experience changes in their metabolism which can quickly lead to weight gain.

"We tend to put sleep on the backburner, but it is very important," Darby says. "Sleep needs vary person to person and just partial sleep deprivation - 30 to 60 minutes nightly for a week - will have an impact on how you feel during the daytime."

If you find yourself sleeping in on the weekends, Darby says you're not getting enough sleep during the week.

Thankfully, she says there are things you can do to ensure you get enough shut eye this summer.

Block out the light

Darby recommends people struggling to fall asleep at night make sure their bedroom is as dark as possible by hanging heavy curtains or wearing an eye mask to bed.

She says artificial light from computers, phones and TVs can be even worse for sleep because we stare directly into them and they are mentally stimulating. If possible, she recommends removing these items from the bedroom, but otherwise at least having them farther from the bed.

Keep it cool

While some people are relaxed at the thought of warm, cozy bedding, Darby says most of us actually sleep better in a cool environment, making it difficult to fall asleep on muggy summer nights. If you don't have air conditioning, she recommends moving your bed to the coldest part of the house.

"Fans are also a reasonable solution, and the white noise should not bother you too much," she says.

Don't sleep in

When we're trying to catch up on our sleep, Darby says most people try to go to bed early. Instead, she says waking up early is the best way to regulate your sleep cycle.

"Your wake time anchors your sleep schedule better than your bed time," she says. "If you wake up at the same time each day you'll naturally get sleepy earlier."

Exercise at the right time

Darby says exercising regularly can improve a person's sleep, but it depends on what time of day you work out. If you are too active during the few hours before you go to bed it can be difficult to unwind, she says.

It is also best to avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine too close to bedtime as these can keep you up late as well.

Fido has to go

Pets can be comforting for some, Darby says, but they disrupt sleep of others. If pets on the bed wake you up at night, she recommends locking them out of the bedroom one evening to see if your night is more restful.

Take a week off

Not sure how much sleep is enough? Darby says sleep needs vary dramatically from person to person, and the best way to determine how much sleep you need is to spend one week "free sleeping" - go to bed and wake up at whatever time feels natural.

"If we are allowed to sleep as much as we want we typically balance out," Darby says. "Summer vacation can be a great time to try this out."

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