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Getting Your Z's: Facts, Fiction

February 16, 1991|JAN HOFMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sheep-counting not only works, it makes scientific sense. Vigorous exercise in the evening may tire you, but it also might keep you awake. And taking an afternoon nap may be the worst possible move if you're sleep-deprived.

The subject of sleep is fraught with myth and misunderstanding, say sleep experts such as Dr. Paul Selecky, director of the Hoag Sleep Center at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. And although researchers are learning more all the time about what goes on during those enigmatic hours we spend with our eyes closed, there still "isn't a lot of science associated with this, beyond the common-sense things," he says.

What scientists do know in some cases contradicts longstanding folk wisdom, while confirming it in others.

Take sheep-counting. According to the Better Sleep Council based in Burtonsville, Md., recent research has confirmed that counting sheep is the perfect brain activity for insomniacs because it engages both sides of the brain at once. The right brain, which produces visual images, conjures up the wooly creatures, while the more logical left brain does the counting, giving both sides a soothing, repetitive--and boring--activity that usually does the trick if done right.

A glass of milk at bedtime, a favorite of '50s TV mom June Cleaver (she served it warm to Ward, Wally and the Beav) and real-life mothers everywhere, may help, Selecky says, "but there's no magic in milk." Although some have speculated that the amino acid L-tryptophan in milk may help bring on sleep, Selecky says that has yet to be proven. "Perhaps it does," he says. "But it's probably more of a conditioning effect."

A late-evening alcoholic nightcap may have a sedative effect initially, Selecky says, "but for some individuals, it then has a rebound stimulant effect a couple of hours later. People wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder why they're awake."

Exercise during the day may contribute to sound sleep at night.

"Studies have shown that marathon runners have more consolidated sleep than people who are not regular exercisers," he says. "But avoid vigorous exercise near bedtime, because that speeds up your system and may keep you awake."

Naps, if you have the time to indulge in them, are no problem--unless you're having trouble falling asleep at night, Selecky says. In that case it might be better to yawn through the afternoon in favor of a longer continuous period of sleep at night.

How much sleep is enough, anyway? Eight hours isn't right for everyone. "The average is four to nine hours, and most people need six to eight," Selecky says. "The only way to find out is if you're sleepy during the day, go to bed an hour earlier at night. Then you will know how much sleep your body needs."

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