Do You Get Enough Sleep?

— Written By Tracy Davis
en Español

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alarm clock on pillow

When your busy schedule cuts into your down time, do you cut back on your sleep? You may think that sleep is merely “down time” for your body, but you may want to think again about the role sleep plays in your daily life. As we continue this series on the Eat Smart Move More Core Behaviors for overall health, this fourth installment discusses the importance of getting enough sleep.

Sleep is a restorative process and plays an important function in overall health of the body and mind. Insufficient sleep is a widespread problem in the U.S. with as many as one in three adults regularly deprived of sleep. When it comes to sleep, both quantity and quality matter. Your total sleep time and how much of the various stages of sleep you get each night determine how well rested you feel and how well you function the next day.

Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep makes it tough to focus the next day and can slow your response time and may even result in making bad decisions. Over time, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and other medical conditions. Sleep also affects mood. Insufficient sleep can cause irritability and difficulty concentrating and can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. The less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight, develop diabetes, and to prefer eating foods that are high in calories and carbohydrates.

Good quality sleep is needed to think clearly, react quickly, solve problems, and improve memory. Deep sleep triggers release of the hormones that boost muscle mass, repair cells and tissues, and help the immune system fight infections. It improves mood and mental alertness and supports positive emotional health.

Though there is a wide range of causes and types of sleeping problems, experts point to several practical steps to promote more restful sleep. These fundamental strategies can be divided into four categories: creating a sleep-inducing environment, taking control of your schedule, following a pre-bedtime routine, and adopting pro-sleep habits during the day. In each category, there are specific actions you can take to make it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake well-rested.

To create a sleep-inducing environment, focus on maximizing comfort and minimizing distractions. Use the best mattress and pillow for your particular needs and preferences. Choose sheets and blankets that feel comfortable to the touch and help maintain a comfortable temperature during the night. Minimize distractions by blocking out light and noise. If you can’t eliminate sources of noise, consider drowning them out with a fan or white noise machine. Calming scents, such as lavender, can also help ease you into sleep. Sachet packets, essential oils, lotions, sprays, and other products are available.

Take control of your sleep schedule by setting some parameters for yourself and your family. Set a fixed wake-up time and stick to it, even on weekends or other days when you would otherwise sleep in. Budget time for sleep just like you do everything else in your day. Think about your fixed wake-up time, then work backwards to identify a target bedtime. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Preschool children need 11-12 hours and school-aged children and teens need at least 10 hours of sleep each night. Naps are great for kids, but can throw off sleep schedules for adults. If you do take naps, the best time is shortly after lunch in the early afternoon and the best nap length is around 20 minutes.

Follow a pre-bedtime routine by winding down for at least 30 minutes. Quiet reading, low-impact stretching, or listening to soothing music are great ways to get your mind and body ready for sleep. It is important during this time to dim lights and disconnect from devices – tablets, cell phones, and laptops. The link between light and the brain is quite interesting. The body’s circadian rhythm is centered around a 24-hour day and is affected by environmental cues, especially light. The most powerful cue is the rising and setting of the sun. Different types of light affect our natural circadian rhythm. Short-wavelength blue light that comes from the sun, LED bulbs, tablets, e-readers, computers, and cellphones sparks cortisol production, which keeps us alert while suppressing the body’s natural production of melatonin which helps us to relax. Long-wavelength red light that comes from lanterns, candles, and firelight has less impact on melatonin production. While blue light is essential for daytime tasks, excessive exposure at night reduces REM sleep, reduces morning alertness, and increases the amount of time it takes to fully wake up.

Adopt pro-sleep habits during the day. How much you move your body, what you eat and drink, and the amount of exposure to natural daylight set the stage for sleep. Since our internal clocks are regulated by light exposure and sunlight has the strongest effect, seek out natural light during the day by getting outside or opening windows or blinds. Daily exercise promotes solid sleep, but it is best to avoid intense exercise close to bedtime since it can hinder your body’s ability to settle down. Monitor your caffeine intake and be mindful that alcohol and nicotine can cause fragmented sleep. Don’t eat a large meal, especially fatty or spicy foods, close to bedtime. If you need an evening snack, choose something light and healthy. Avoid eating inflammatory foods that are high in added sugar which can be disruptive to the digestive system and cause wakening during the night.

Trying to implement all of these strategies at once can be overwhelming. You can start with small changes and work your way up toward healthier sleep habits. Sleep problems can be complex and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Try different approaches to see what works for you, but remember that it can take some time for new methods to take effect, so give your changes time to kick in before assuming that they aren’t working. If you are having serious difficulties sleeping, consult a health care provider.