End the Negative-Thinking Game

A constant inner dialogue runs through your mind on a daily basis. Our minds don’t place any value on the content of these thoughts but does weigh them by volume. Unfortunately, research shows that humans have an inherent negativity bias that shapes perceptions about a variety of tasks and psychological situations.

This bias often creates intrusive and repetitive negative thoughts commonly referred to as Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). A baseball player who repetitively tells himself that he is “no good” or “letting his team down” every time he makes a fielding error is being bitten by ANTs.

An ANT is an intrusive idea or theme that often accompanies considerable negative emotion. The aforementioned baseball player likely leaves the field feeling frustrated, tense and apprehensive after making errors simply because of the feedback loop playing in his brain. The truth is that these thoughts rarely contain any validity.

Retro Vintage Motivational Quote Poster. No Negative Thoughts Allowed. Grunge effects can be easily removed for a cleaner look. Vector illustration
Research shows that negativity can affect your health.

Health Effects

Negative thinking can affect performance as well as overall health. Considerable evidence exists that negative thinking and negative emotions contribute to increased inflammation via a release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can make individuals more susceptible to illness and injury and slow healing.

Automatic and repetitive negative thinking also can affect the amount and quality of sleep. Research has shown significant deficits in college students who engaged in chronic negative thinking patterns.

Common Thought Patterns

Identification of your thinking patterns and uncovering ANTs is helpful in the reduction or elimination of these cognitive habits. While somewhat similar, these thought patterns fall into certain categories:

  • Overgeneralization is a skewed thought process where one negative event is extended beyond that single event. For example, being late to work produces thoughts like, “I can’t seem to get anything together; I’ll never be successful.”
  • Filtering is a bias toward only negative feedback. “My boss thought my report was good except he said I needed to check a couple numbers. He probably thinks I’m incompetent.”
  • Emotional reasoning is mistaking feelings for facts. For example, when someone “feels fat,” they automatically assume that they are overweight.

Strategies for Tackling Negativity

Do you ever have thoughts like these? Let’s take a look at a few strategies to change your cognitive approach and your health for the better. While these thought patterns may have some commonality, solutions are not necessarily “one size fits all.”

  • Mindfulness entails having an awareness of what you are thinking and feeling and beginning to look at thoughts and situations as just that. Thinking “I am worried” or “I am embarrassed” is a first step. I work with patients to teach them to accept feelings as they are and refocus on the task at hand in that moment.
  • Decentering acknowledges that we have negative thoughts, but we also have ones that are positive and neutral. We can learn to choose which thoughts to attend to and which ones don’t matter. Put the more helpful ones front and center while decentering what doesn’t actually belong. I suggest keeping a journal and reviewing the meaning, or lack thereof, of thoughts on a certain subject.
  • Restructuring recognizes an ANT or negative idea and disputes its validity; basically finding evidence or lack thereof for this belief.

The content and quality of one’s thoughts affects your overall outlook and well-being. I challenge you to start incorporating more positivity and mindfulness into your days. It just may improve your health.

The benefits of exercising your brain

Have you ever wondered why exercising your brain is important and how you can exercise it to keep it healthy? Research indicates that exercising the brain is like exercising the heart; when we keep blood flowing, we keep ourselves fit.

I spoke with Dr. Mario Dulay, neuropsychologist at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, who gave us two important factors on how to keep your brain healthy and in shape, and why doing so is good for you.

Use it or lose it

The more you test and use your brain, the better it will perform. Dulay says that any cognitive stimulation is better than none, so staying physically, mentally, and socially active allows your brain to function better than a less active person.

Brain training featured image
Mentally-stimulating activities reinforce brain cells and the connections between them, and might even create new nerve cells.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, mentally-stimulating activities reinforce brain cells and the connections between them, and might even create new nerve cells. Such stimulating activities consist of games, educational activities and social activities.

Practice makes perfect

Cognitive compensation refers to the idea of practicing tricks to improve cognition. Examples include using mnemonics to remember people’s names, or using a calendar to improve the likelihood of not forgetting.

Dulay says people become more forgetful and lose cognitive abilities as they age. By compensating with tricks or reminders, we help maintain our independence and decrease stress.

In addition, compensatory activities may provide mental stimulation that can improve cognitive function and increase cognitive reserve, or the mind’s ability to resist damage to the brain.

Brain training is all about picking something you love so you'll do it consistently Click To Tweet

Dulay also emphasizes that it’s not just about doing anything; it’s about doing what you love and doing it often.

Here is a list of some suggested activities you can do to help exercise your brain:

  • Read
  • Volunteer or mentor
  • Learn something new; a new instrument, hobby, language, etc.
  • Explore a region or culture of the world that interests you
  • Brain teasers or word games
  • Write a blog
  • Attend a cooking class
  • Play with your grandchildren

Each of these activities can help stimulate your brain; but remember, it’s important to find something you enjoy doing and will consistently do.

How Jacquline survived Chiari malformation

On May 14, 2010, Jacquline Adams, who goes by the stage name Iman Heartandsoul, abruptly woke up from her sleep and began to shake uncontrollably. She felt as if she was losing control of her body, and when she got up, she knew she wasn’t her normal self.

After numerous hospital visits, doctors couldn’t settle on a diagnosis and Jacquline started losing hope. That’s until she came across “Zipperheads,” a Facebook page about Chiari malformation, a condition in which the cerebellum, or the part of the brain at the back of the skull that controls balance, is too small or deformed, which puts pressure on the brain.

Members of the Facebook page shared similar symptoms to the ones Jacquline was experiencing, including headaches, pressure in the head, ringing in the ears, lack of sleep and depression. They advised her to see Dr. Rob G. Parrish, a neurosurgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Chiari malformation MRI
This MRI image shows a Chiari malformation. Image via Wikipedia.

After reviewing a previous MRI, Dr. Parrish diagnosed Jacquline with Chiari malformation. Jacquline recalls Dr. Parrish saying he was stunned that she was still walking considering how advanced her condition was. Soon after her diagnosis, Dr. Parrish performed surgical decompression that resulted in the removal of two inches of her skull and two bones from her neck to make room for her brain. While the surgery is not a cure, in some cases it halts or stops the progression of the disease.

“I decided after my surgery that I would be a fighter, a survivor, and I was determined to bring some well-needed attention to an unknown illness,” Jacquline said. “The more attention Chiari gets, hopefully Chiarians will not have to search and suffer as long as I did just to get diagnosed and treated.”

As a singer, Jacquline knew she wanted to use her talent to financially help parents of children with Chiari. After her surgery, Jacquline recorded and released her own CD, “Determination,” where all proceeds went to helping these families in need.

She also founded a nonprofit, Iman’s Zipperhead Hearts for Chiari, and started an annual benefit concert and fundraiser, An Evening with Iman and Friends. The fundraiser was designed to raise awareness and assist Chiari patients financially, and has received a proclamation from the office of Mayor Annise Parker that declared Saturday, May 9, 2015 as “An Evening with Iman and Friends Day.”

“I have had my ups and downs, my good days, my bad days, but with the support of my husband, children, family and friends, I got better and stronger – mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Jacquline said.

 

Chiari malformation was earlier estimated to affect nearly 1 in every 1,000 people. With the advancement of technology, experts now believe that Chiari is more common than previously thought. To learn more about Chiari malformation, visit this resource page.

How does color blindness affect one’s life?

While recently visiting my son at college, I immediately noticed something was a bit off. “What, is your hair pink?” I asked. “No, it’s blue,” he said.

For many years I have had this problem, and it’s not my son’s hair color. I’m color blind. No need for a pity party though, because I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million Americans – 8 percent of men and less than 1 percent of women – have some degree of color blindness.

This is not a handicap by any stretch of the imagination. People who are color blind see colors; they just don’t see them as normal-sighted people do.

“Instead of calling it color blindness,’ you could call it color confusion,” says Dr. Andrew Lee, chairman of the department of ophthalmology at Houston Methodist Hospital and a professor of ophthalmology, neurology and neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Sure, it can be a drawback in a few aspects of life but for the most part, color blind people rarely notice the difference.”

Color blind people don’t see life like a black and white TV show. Recognizing pure, deep color is no problem but color blindness tends to smear those millions of in-between shades into a spectrum of just a handful. A color blind person sees about 1 percent of the colors that everyone else can see. The color blind viewer can confuse colors, and some colors may appear washed out.

color-blind-featured
Do you see a number in each circle? The Ishihara color blindness test is the most well known color vision deficiency test. Click the image to take the test.

To me apples are red, summer leaves are green and the sky is blue. But I probably wouldn’t be much fun on a drive to see fall foliage, or a trip to the paint store. Rainbows? Forget it.

“In most people color blindness is caused by a congenital defect in photoreceptors in the retina of the eye,” explains Lee. “There are other, rarer forms of acquired color blindness that can be caused by injury, illness or a reaction to medications. Any disease of the optic nerve or retina, or rarely even a brain tumor, can bring on acquired color blindness.”

Color blind people figure out simple workarounds to help them function in a multi-colored world. And it helps to have a sympathetic family who corrects the settings on the TV or hangs a matching tie with a freshly pressed shirt.

A color blind person sees about 1% of the colors that everyone else can see Click To Tweet

Color blindness can close some jobs to affected people. Pilots and air traffic controllers must be able to read color-coded instruments or recognize colors that represent different altitudes on a radar screen. Railroad engineers are guided by signal lights of different colors, and laboratory technicians read colors for litmus tests and specimen slides.

Some companies sell corrective glasses or contact lenses to brighten those troublesome colors and a few video game manufacturers are building in modes to substitute icons and shapes for colors. And there are few phone apps that are advertised as filters to show what a color is supposed to look like.

On the medical side, Lee says there really is no medical or surgical correction that can cure congenital color blindness. “Most people adjust, and move on with their lives,” he says. “The human brain has a remarkable capacity to compensate for a deficiency and people often make very clever adjustments to get around color blindness.”

Because the genetic condition most likely began centuries ago, Lee believes humans have dealt with color blindness throughout history. “Humans managed to survive all these thousands of years, so good news – it’s not a serious disadvantage,” he says.

Now, blue hair? That’s a serious disadvantage. Anyway, the joke’s on my son: other people looking at a photo agree his hair looks more green than blue.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

One of the most acclaimed and successful American entertainers of all time is an Arkansas country boy named Glen Campbell. In his heyday, Campbell was truly the king of all media: first and foremost a singer with 36 chart hits including “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Gentle On My Mind,” he also happened to be host of a network TV variety series, a movie star and an instrumentalist so accomplished that he was an elite studio musician in his early days.

In 2011 Campbell – who was 75 years old at the time – announced a series of concerts that would be a victory lap for his five-decade career. They would also be a poignant farewell, because he also revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

A new documentary, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, follows the entertainer on this final tour and powerfully traces the entertainer’s decline as his disease progresses. It is heartbreaking to see this gifted man virtually fade away before your eyes.

Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist and a professor of neurology for Weill Cornell Medical College, has seen the movie and he believes that it may help educate audiences about Alzheimer’s, which affects more than 5 million Americans.

“It is excellent, very perceptive … fascinating for a neurologist,” Masdeu says. “The film is really a moving and informative documentary.”

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
Glen Campbell and his daughter Ashley Campbell perform in the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which will open in Houston Nov. 21. (Photo courtesy of PCH Films)

Masdeu is impressed how matter-of-factly the film depicts Alzheimer’s symptoms and a patient’s state of mind. In the opening scenes, Campbell watches old home movies with his wife Kim. Campbell recognizes no one – not his then-wife, not his own children, not even himself. Later, in a medical examination, Campbell is incapable of naming the first U.S. president and cannot identify where he is at the time.

But even in the face of this devastating condition, the film is a joyous celebration of Campbell’s music and strikes a hopeful note as it shows his family’s love and support. “It shows how, when a family understands the disease, a patient’s life can be wonderful,” Masdeu says.

Masdeu also applauded the film’s depiction of the support Campbell received from audiences at shows along his tour. Because he could not remember song lyrics, Campbell was completely dependent on teleprompters. One sequence begins when the teleprompter system crashes, and Campbell brings the performance to a dead halt. The camera does not turn away as viewers relive awkward minutes until the system is restored and the show goes on.

James Keach, the film’s director, says scenes like that and others, which starkly depict Campbell’s condition, were tough to film and to experience. “We had the complete, total support of Glen’s family … ultimately, they want to help educate everyone about the true face of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In fact, Campbell himself asked Keach and his partner Trevor Albert to make the documentary. Keach and Albert co-produced the Academy Award-winning Walk The Line, about Johnny Cash and June Carter, and at first they believed they were going to create a simple music documentary about Glen Campbell.

“Originally we thought there was no way to make an upbeat movie about Alzheimer’s disease,” Keach says. “But we saw Glen’s humor and courage, his faith and his love for his family even as he faced this horrible disease. And we saw the love and complete support that came from his family … That is truly the heart of this film.”

 

By the time Campbell finished the tour of 151 shows in 2012, his skills had deteriorated noticeably. In April of this year, he was admitted into a long-term care facility. Keach says his disease has progressed to the point where communication is nearly impossible.

Even so, the 78-year-old Campbell can still occasionally pick up a guitar and play with some of the skill that made him a sought-after musician decades ago. Masdeu says this shows how the disease does not affect the entire brain at one time, but affects some areas more than others. Keach believes it also proves how deeply music is embedded in Glen Campbell.

“Music is his first language,” Keach adds, “and it’s the last thing he’s going to forget.”

Music is Glen Campbell's first language and the last thing he’s going to forget Click To Tweet

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is currently playing in select theaters around the country. It will open in Houston on Nov. 21 for a limited engagement.

Holiday caregiver tips for dealing with Alzheimer’s

“Holiday season.” These two words, in my mind and probably in your mind as well, bring up many images and memories of traditions and events; most often with family and friends. Year after year, we look forward with joy and sometimes trepidation as the celebratory time draws close. For individuals and families dealing with memory and behavior changes due to Alzheimer’s disease, finding joy might be challenging, but it can be done.

My experience with families and individuals over the years has taught me the keys to a positive holiday season are about managing expectations and planning early. The hustle and bustle that is a common theme of this time of year brings some stress for all of us; but it can be a constant companion for individuals and families dealing with dementia or cognitive impairment.

When dealing with Alzheimer's memory and behavior changes, it's all about managing expectations and planning Click To Tweet

Instead of giving up on enjoying the holiday season, I would suggest making some minor adjustments to your family traditions such as:

  • Keep your loved one as involved as possible. Consider what areas they can be involved in safely to give them a sense of purpose – open cards together, discuss gift selections, or allow simple baking tasks. Try to focus on the moment about the memories you are making rather than the outcome or perfect results.
  • Be consistent with medications and physician recommendations. Even though you are busy, you will find that maintaining the structure of medications, treatments and day programs will be better for your loved one and, ultimately, for you.
  • Choose decorations and allow yourself to make changes from past celebrations. Make sure your loved one’s living space is safe – lighted candles may be a hazard and large blinking lights can cause disorientation. You can still create a beautifully decorated home, accepting that the décor may be very different from years past.
  • Recognize the effects of overstimulation. Minimize overstimulation and your anxiety level as this can transfer to your loved one. Keep activities simple and alert your guests ahead of time about your own needs and wishes. Lessen the number of visitors; simplify the plan; and allow a few days on either side of an event to be quiet and relaxing.
  • Care for YOU. Make a list of the usual things you do during the holidays. Decide which you want to keep in your plan and what you can skip. Allow others to help you and be clear in what your need for them to do. Include time away for yourself and ways that help you regain your energy. 

For more information on Alzheimer’s diseasevisit the Nantz National Alzheimer Center or call 713.441.1150. 

What is dementia?

Tips for adjusting to daylight saving time

very fall, Americans love the idea of gaining an extra hour when daylight saving time ends. But if you’re already one of the millions of Americans who is sleep deprived, “falling back” an hour doesn’t mean you’re gaining sleep. Dr. Aparajitha Verma, a sleep neurologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, answers some of the most common questions about how to practice good sleep hygiene before (and after) November 2 rolls around.

What are the pros and cons of gaining an hour on Sunday from a health standpoint?

Pro – In theory, daylight saving time gives us the opportunity, at least twice a year, to practice good sleep habits that we should try to use year round. You should sleep in a quiet and dark environment and set the thermostat at a slightly cooler temperature; don’t allow pets in the bed; no reading, eating or watching TV in bed; don’t watch the clock; set a “wind down” time prior to going to bed; don’t take over-the-counter sleep aids and avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime, as these can disrupt sleep. Instead, try drinking warm teas or milk to increase your body temperature, which helps induce and sustain sleep; and exercise is good for sleep, but not within two hours of going to sleep.

Con – You may think you’re gaining an hour, but only a minority of people actually use that extra hour for catching Zs. Instead, the one-hour shift in the sleep cycle can actually negatively affect sleep patterns. People wake up earlier, have more trouble falling asleep, and are more likely to wake up during the night. If you’re already sleep deprived (also known as a voluntary short sleeper) and regularly get less than seven hours a night, or an early riser (also known as a lark), you’ll probably have the most trouble adjusting to the new schedule.  

    

 

 

What effects might this time change have on our health?

There are the obvious problems such as increased fatigue level, decreased productivity at work, and increased risk of accidents due to sleepy drivers. But disrupted sleep patterns can lead to more serious sleep problems. More than 70 million people in the United States are already affected by some kind of sleep disorder. Add the time change, and it can cause serious health and lifestyle issues.

Daylight saving time gives us the opportunity to practice good sleep habits that we should try to use year… Click To Tweet

People need to make sure they are well rested before the time change. One way to do that is to start changing your sleep habits days before the time change. You can get up an hour earlier and go to sleep an hour earlier. You can also take a short nap in the afternoon on Sunday if you need it, but not within a few hours of your regular bedtime. Napping too close to bedtime can disrupt nighttime sleep.

Are there positive health effects on our body?

Each of us experiences physical, mental, and behavioral changes during the course of a day. These are called circadian rhythms. The daily cycle of light and dark keep them on a 24-hour cycle. Sleep is a component of circadian rhythms. When we lose an hour every spring, it can take days to get your circadian rhythms back on track. But in the fall, all it usually takes is one or two nights. Regular exercise, preferably at the same time each day, may help get your sleep cycle back on track. Going to bed and getting up on a schedule can help. Caffeine and alcohol intake in moderation is always recommended. And giving into brief afternoon nap during the week may be a pleasant and relaxing way to restore lost sleep.

Get more sleep tips by checking out our Sweet Dreams Pinterest board:

 Follow Houston Methodist’s board Sweet Dreams on Pinterest.

Concussion: movies vs. reality

Our hero sinks back into the shadows, waiting for the night watchman to make his regular rounds. He doesn’t have to wait long. He swings with the butt of his pistol and renders the guard unconscious with a blow to the head. “Sweet dreams,” he says. “You’re gonna wake up with a wicked headache.”

Stop the video. For decades, good guys and bad guys (and girls, too) have been knocked out with a bop on the head, a sock to the chin or a quick karate chop. The movies’ all time knockout champ has to be super spy James Bond, who usually comes into consciousness bound and gagged for the next cliffhanger. The hapless detective on The Rockford Files was knocked out pretty much every episode of the TV show’s six-season run.   

We asked Dr. Kenneth Podell, a neuropsychologist and co-director of the Houston Methodist Concussion Center: Is it really possible to smack someone in the head and render them unconscious?

The short answer is yes, it is indeed possible, but the complications come after. “If you hit somebody hard enough with an object to cause unconsciousness, you could also be hitting them hard enough to break the skull,” Podell says. “It depends on the weapon … one with a large surface area (like a frying pan) dissipates the shock over a larger area, while a smaller weapon focuses the force and can easily fracture a skull.”

It doesn't take a big blow to result in a concussion that carries many long-term health effects Click To Tweet

Podell has seen many cases of people suffering long-term effects from concussion after receiving a blow much less violent than those usually depicted in movies. A person coming out of an unconscious episode, waking up as if from a nap, does not happen most of the time. “There’s a kernel of truth there but a blow substantial enough to cause unconsciousness is also very, very dangerous,” he says.

Let’s speed up the video a bit and check out this part: two combatants grapple fiercely in hand-to-hand combat, and the battle is at a deadlock. Suddenly, one uses an explosive head butt to stun his opponent and gain the upper hand.

“Again, this has a bit of truth to it as well … the front, top part of the skull is the thickest part and can theoretically be used as a weapon,” Podell explains. “But remember that’s also the other guy’s thick skull, so the butt-er needs to select a weak point on the butt-ee, like the bridge of the nose or the side of the head.”

Podell cautions that any kind of head injury has the potential to be very serious and have long-term complications. Concussion can cause dizziness, shaky balance, confusion, headaches and memory loss that can linger for weeks or even months. If you suspect you or someone you know may have had a concussion, please immediately seek medical care. 

Like many other physicians, Podell regularly sees things in movies that don’t really line up with real life. He tries to check his expertise at the door, he says, and suspends disbelief to enjoy the fantasy on screen.

Helping those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

After nearly 18 years of working with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients, Pam Glazener had a vision. Glazener, an occupational therapist at Houston Methodist, ached to find a way to improve the lives of the people she encountered every day.

Those are people with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive muscular weakness. As the body’s nerves wither and die, there is nothing left to stimulate muscle tissues, so the body gradually wastes away. ALS leaves a healthy mind trapped inside a helpless body.

People with ALS develop weakness in a group of muscles called the neck extensors, which hold the head upright. Glazener encounters many patients with neck weakness that must rely on an external support for head control, like a brace or a specially-equipped wheelchair with neck support.

“Many of the braces support the neck from the front, with a piece that attaches to the chest and comes up under the chin,” she explains. “While that worked to support the head, I also saw these braces restrict speaking, eating and sometimes breathing.” She envisioned a different kind of brace, one that would offer head and neck support, but from behind the head.

Pam Glazener adjusts the head support on her prototype neck brace for ALS patients.
Pam Glazener adjusts the head support on her prototype neck brace for ALS patients.

Pam’s design moves the business end of the brace to the back. A head support reaches up the neck and secures around the forehead, keeping the jaws free for movement. The lower part of the brace secures closer to the waist rather than around the chest, allowing patients with lung and diaphragm weakness to breathe more easily.

“When patients have no head control, they often have to rely on a wheelchair or become bedridden,” she says. “What I like about (this new) design is that it keeps patients talking, eating, breathing and walking.”

Working with a company that manufactures braces, Pam worked up a prototype of her brace and conducted a small study on patients at the Vicki Appel MDA/ALS Center at Methodist Neurological Institute. Her study found the prototype allowed ALS patients with neck weakness to remain ambulatory while maintaining or improving their breathing.

ALS leaves a healthy mind trapped inside a helpless body Click To Tweet

Encouraged by the results of this initial study, Pam plans to conduct more research and development. When that is complete, Houston Methodist Hospital will attempt to identify a company to manufacture the brace and place it on the market.

Each year ALS affects an average of 3,000 people in the United States, usually between the ages of 40- 70 years old. Many know ALS better as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the New York Yankees first baseman who retired in 1939 upon learning of his diagnosis with the disease.

This July 4 will mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s iconic farewell speech, where he told thousands of people in Yankee Stadium and countless more listening in on radio, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” He died less than two years later, at the age of 37. He remains a source of inspiration for tens of thousands of patients and caregivers like Pam Glazener.

It’s my great joy to possibly make a difference in the lives of some of our patients. If I can help improve the quality of life for just one patient, I’ve done my job.

Obviously, for Pam this is more than a job. “My patients are my extended family,” she explains. “When I can’t see them in person, we communicate through email, asking questions and getting advice. One of my original patients (from 18 years ago) is still living … so I am always happy to provide some hope.”

3 science-backed ways to improve your sleep

You toss and turn and can’t get to sleep. The next morning, instead of being alert and ready to take on the day, you find yourself dragging—dependent on coffee for a morning boost. For many, something as integral to our nature as sleep seems elusive.

Night Owl Surfing the Net
Are you a night owl? If you are, your body may produce less melatonin, a hormone tied to sleep and wake cycles that’s also a potent antioxidant.

From weight gain to increased cardiovascular risk to even accelerated aging, poor sleep quality can be disastrous to your health.

Improving your sleep can boost your immune system, increase athletic performance and improve your memory.

Here are three ways to improve your sleep and make sure you get a good night’s rest.

Minimize your exposure to blue light after sunset

The pineal gland in your brain produces the hormone melatonin. In turn, melatonin helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, causing drowsiness at appropriate times.

Not only does melatonin help sync sleep patterns, it functions as a potent antioxidant that is as effective as vitamin E and has been found to significantly reduce cellular stress and damage. The best part? It’s naturally produced by your body.

Melatonin helps regulate sleep, but is disrupted by artificial light from devices like tablets and smartphones Click To Tweet

For melatonin to be produced, you must be exposed to natural patterns of light, meaning lots of bright light during the day and minimal blue light at night. To maximize melatonin production, consider following these tips:

  • Wear amber-tinted, blue-blocking sunglasses after sunset if you’re exposed to electronic screens or bright lights
  • Studies in 2009 and 2011 found that wearing these kinds of glasses help combat disruptions in melatonin
  • If you have a sleep disorder or do shift work, replace house lights you use in the evening with amber light bulbs
  • Install blue-blocking software like Twilightf.lux or Redshift  on your computer, tablet and/or smartphone
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible by covering windows with heavy drapes
  • Turn electronic devices that emit light off or away from your bed

Eliminate late-night meals and snacking

Don’t raid the fridge after dark or eat dinner too late. A 2011 study found that eating late in the evening extended the time it took individuals to get to sleep and reduced overall sleep quality.

Research shows that eating too late at night disrupts melatonin production, as well as raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is naturally supposed to be high in the morning, not evening.

Research shows that eating late at night extends the time it takes to get to sleep and reduces sleep quality Click To Tweet

So, what seems to be the sweet spot for meal timing at night? Research leans toward keeping your evening meal about four hours away from bedtime.

Don’t drink alcohol near bedtime

While many like a nightcap, it’s not the best idea as far as sleep goes.

A small amount of alcohol (such as a glass of wine) may make it easier to fall asleep, but any amount of alcohol disrupts the second half of your sleep cycle, which is important for concentration, motor skills and memory.

While alcohol may seem to help you fall asleep, it results in a less restorative sleep cycle Click To Tweet

Ladies take special note: You metabolize alcohol differently than men, absorbing 30% more in your bloodstream. This means alcohol disrupts sleep more in women than in men.

Interested in learning more about sleep? Follow our Sweet Dreams board on Pinterest.

Follow Houston Methodist’s board Sweet Dreams on Pinterest.

Reviewed by Aparajitha K. Verma, M.D.