Maybe you hit the snooze button this morning, only to find yourself scrambling to get out of the house on time. Or maybe you spent a few too many hours last night answering emails, scrolling through social media feeds or binge watching your favorite TV show – and before you knew it, you were headed to bed past midnight.
In today’s busy world, sleep has taken a backseat to the endless list of tasks that can take over our day. We live in a society that is “on” around the clock. That means we often don’t get an appropriate amount of sleep. But, just like how eating well, drinking enough water and exercising are essential to our overall health, so is getting enough sleep. The problem is most of us don’t.
Sleep deprivation is a broad definition for conditions associated with sleep deficient in amount or quality. Research shows most people need between seven and eight hours of sleep every night to feel completely refreshed and to be able to function at their best ability.
Take a moment to sit back and think about how much sleep you get every night. If your answer is six hours or less, you are one of the 40.6 million sleep-deprived American adults.
What’s the big deal if I’m a little sleepy?
Without sufficient sleep, you may experience hormonal imbalances that can affect your physical and emotional health.
“A good night’s sleep helps us hit the reset button in our system. Without it, we may start the day too close to where we ended the previous one with little or no reset,” says Denise Bundick, a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years of experience and a team member at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
Lack of sleep can affect our thinking and cognition, making it difficult to pay attention or remain alert for sustained periods of time.
Over time, not getting the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep each night could put your health in jeopardy. Sleep allows the body to repair itself. Not getting enough sleep can weaken your immune system and leave you more susceptible to getting, and staying, ill.
Sleep deprivation is also a roadblock to successfully managing your weight. Research has shown that people who don’t get enough sleep often have a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference. If you’re getting enough exercise and eating right, not getting enough sleep regularly might still be impacting your physical health.
Continued sleep deprivation increases the risk for developing chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. It can also shorten your life expectancy.
What’s keeping you up at night?
To begin understanding how to get the best sleep to maintain and improve your health, the best place to start is understanding why you aren’t getting enough sleep at night. There are lots of factors that affect sleep quality, but a few are pretty common:
- Physical Environment – Are you going to bed surrounded by too much noise or too much bright light? Is it too hot or too cold in your room? Make sure to reduce light, noise and extremes in temperature to create a comfortable sleeping environment.
- Diet and Exercise – Studies suggest that a healthier diet and more physical activity can directly affect how well you sleep every night. A poor diet and a lack of regular physical activity can hurt your sleep cycles. Maintaining a healthy diet and weight will help your body establish restorative sleep cycles.
- Anxiety and Stress – If you’re worrying too much before you go to bed, it’s harder to relax and calm your mind to get a good night’s sleep. Your mind needs time to prepare for sleep, too.
- Caffeine, Nicotine and Alcohol – When consumed too close to bedtime, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can cause an irregular sleep pattern. Caffeine and nicotine can both keep you awake longer and make it harder to fall asleep. This means you’re reaching for that extra cup of coffee in the morning. Alcohol also disrupts your body’s natural rhythm and makes it difficult to get high-quality sleep.
Don’t sleep on it. Take some action.
It can be overwhelming to think about just how many things can affect the amount or quality of sleep you get every night. It would be easier if we all had an extra hour or two each day. However, here are some habits you can start forming now to help you get better sleep:
- Create a nighttime routine. This will get you in the habit of calming yourself down before you go to sleep. This routine could include reading a book, doing some light stretches or playing with your pets. Or, it could be just as simple as washing your face and brushing your teeth. This should also include disconnecting from your phone, your laptop and other gadgets. The artificial lights from these screens trick your brain into being more awake than it should. You can end up wired when you should be turning off. Screen lights also disrupt our body’s production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. If that book you’re reading is on your phone, consider installing a blue light blocking app to make it easier to fall asleep.
- Set a goal to go to sleep and wake up at a specific time each day. Aim for a specific time you want to go to sleep and get up in the morning. This will help get your body adjusted to a regular rhythm. And, over time, will help you develop a healthier sleep cycle. While it might seem like a good idea to “catch up” on sleep over the weekends, getting that extra sleep won’t actually help reduce the health effects of long-term sleep deprivation on a daily basis. Setting a daily schedule can help combat sleep deprivation consistently.
- Stay away from caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed. Coffee is great for waking up in the morning – but not so great for turning off at the end of the day. Limit how much alcohol you drink when you need to get a good night’s sleep. It may help you fall asleep, but it will disrupt your sleep throughout the night as your body begins to process it. If you still need a warm beverage to relax before you go to bed, try decaf tea or warm milk.
- Wind down before bed. To prevent anxiety and stress from keeping you up, incorporate some relaxation techniques into your nighttime routine. Consider muscle relaxation, simple mental exercises or deep breathing. You can also calm your body and mind down by taking a warm bath before bed, or listening to white noise
- Get your workout in. Exercise helps tire you out, which in turn helps you sleep better at night. Even as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day can help improve your sleep quality. Exercise is also vital to reducing stress and helping to maintain hormonal balances. Both of these lead to better sleep quality. But don’t exercise too close to bedtime. You’ll stimulate your body and brain without giving it enough time to relax again before bed.
- Don’t eat right before you go to bed. Not giving your body enough time before bed to digest that late night snack can interrupt your sleep cycle. And for some, food may cause painful heartburn, making it difficult to fall asleep.
You can rest assured with a good night’s sleep.
Taking your sleep seriously is an important step to living a happier and healthier life. Without quality sleep, we can’t function at our best. And a lack of sleep negatively affects our health now and down the road. While sleep may be the first thing to go when we have a busy day, it’s the most important thing we can do to make sure we can tackle the next day. So take a moment to re-evaluate how you’re sleeping every night. Think about what you can do to make sure you’re getting some quality shut-eye.