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Tips for getting a better night's sleep

Sleep is crucial to human health, and particularly a healthy nervous system. Sleep favors muscular and nervous relaxation, while lack of sleep promotes muscular and nervous tension. Sleep deprivation studies on medical students show that even one poor night's sleep can cause a pattern of tender points similar to that which is seen in patients with fibromyalgia.

Sleep deprivation can lead to chronic drowsiness and inability to concentrate, as well as impairment of memory and physical performance. Perhaps more important is the fact that sleep deprivation can impair the immune system, leading to greater susceptibility to illness. Most people have experienced the onset of the common cold the day after a very late night or restless sleep. Additionally, the only time some of our muscles such as those in our spine can completely relax is during a phase of sleep called "delta sleep."

"For people suffering from physical ailments, a good night's rest can definitely speed the healing process," says Michael Wiles, DC, MEd, dean of the chiropractic program at Northwestern Health Sciences University. "Unfortunately, many people find it difficult to get enough sleep or to sleep well. Sometimes poor habits are the cause of a poor night's sleep, but other times, it is because people sleep in a posture that puts a strain on their bodies."

Dr. Wiles offers these guidelines about sleeping positions that are the most comfortable for the spine:

? In general, sleep in a position that allows for the three natural and normal spinal curves to be maintained with minimal strain, therefore, the ideal sleeping posture is essentially the fetal position, on your side with your knees drawn up. Often, in this position, people tend to roll forward into a "half-fetal and half-tummy" position. Prevent this by placing a small pillow between the knees or thighs;

? Sleeping on the back is also an acceptable position but it is important to place a small pillow under the lower back region in order to support the natural curve in that part of the spine. Failure to do this can result in a restless sleep and a morning back-ache;

? An appropriate pillow is essential to a restful sleep. It is very important that your neck and head are supported in a position with little or no distortion. There are many commercially available posture pillows, and it is possible that one of these may fit your head and neck properly. In any case, one pillow is usually sufficient unless you have breathing problems requiring more height. Finally, you cannot support your head and neck without a pillow so make sure that you always use a pillow;

? If you are suffering from an acute bout of back pain, sleeping on your back with a cushion under your lower back and one or two pillows under your knees should help you get through the night more comfortably.