Sleep is universally important. Over the years, the United States has conducted many surveys to estimate the number of hours people spend asleep, and the results were alarming. A significant number are considered “short” sleepers, sleeping 6 hours or less each night.
Lack of sleep can lead to a variety of consequences, from memory loss to weight gain. Most experts agree that getting enough sleep is essential for health. However, deciding to sleep more and getting enough sleep are two different matters entirely.
Many people struggle to fall asleep, while others cannot stay asleep. There are light sleepers, insomniacs, people with sleep apnea, and others with restless leg syndrome. Occasionally, people sleep too much and go through their day as dazed as if they had not slept at all.
Keep reading to learn more about sleep, including the benefits of healthy sleep, the consequences of poor sleep, and healthy sleep tips for the future.
A Good Night’s Sleep Breakdown
The National Sleep Foundation advises that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. The younger you are, the more sleep you need. Toddlers between the ages of one and two years old need the most, approximately 11 to 14 hours, while teens only need about 8 to 10 hours.
A good night’s sleep cycles through four sleep stages. Stages one and two are light sleep, stage three is deep and restorative, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is stage four. You cycle through each stage multiple times every night, during which the body engages in several critical functions to restore the body and mind.
Sleep’s greatest benefits come when you get enough hours of uninterrupted sleep and maintain a healthy sleep schedule that fits your natural circadian rhythm.
What is a Circadian Rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is unique to your body and runs on a 24-hour cycle to carry out essential functions and processes. When it comes to sleep, the circadian rhythm dictates when you fall asleep and when you wake up. It’s also the key to a healthy sleep cycle.
Your internal clock is influenced by your environment, especially exposure to light. Sunlight gives the internal clock the clues it needs to “schedule” necessary processes like producing protein for digestion and regulating hormones for energy.
Getting tired at the same time each night and waking up in the morning without an alarm are indications that your circadian rhythm is working correctly.
Benefits of Healthy Sleep
Once you find a healthy sleep schedule, the benefits of sleep are seemingly endless. All systems, from digestion to the immune system, depend on a good night’s sleep to function properly.
Here is a short list of the body’s systems that fall out of balance without sleep.
Sleep deprivation leads to metabolic dysregulation and hormonal imbalances, which affect the body’s ability to convert the food you eat into energy.
The hunger hormones -ghrelin and leptin – go out of balance. Ghrelin tells your body when the stomach is empty and it’s time to eat, and leptin signals when you are full and satisfied. When you do not get enough sleep, your body overproduces ghrelin and underproduces leptin. This leads to increased cravings and hunger even after eating.
Sleep deprivation will not directly make you gain weight, but it will affect your body’s ability to use the food you eat efficiently and cause you to overeat even when you are not hungry.
The hunger hormones are not the only ones affected by lack of sleep. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is also influenced by the amount of sleep you get.
Sleep and stress share the HPA axis. The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis regulates hormones like cortisol and other processes like sleep, digestion, the immune system, and mood. If something disrupts the HPA axis, your sleep cycle and stress levels are both affected.
Sleep deprivation triggers the body to release more cortisol during the day. Cortisol also disrupts sleep by preventing the body from reaching deep sleep and shortening overall sleep time.
Mood regulation is another system that is affected by lack of sleep. If you’ve ever yelled in frustration during your morning commute, you know the results of a less-than-satisfactory night’s sleep well. People tend to choose and dwell on negative memories more after a poor night’s sleep.
One study, in particular, documented the participants’ moods when confronted with both high-stress and low-stress situations after varying degrees of sleep deprivation. The sleep-deprived people reacted the same to low-stress situations as those without any sleep deprivation did to high-stress situations. Less sleep made them extra sensitive to any stressful situation.
One of the lesser-known ways that sleep deprivation can affect your health is how it changes your ability to socialize. Everyone knows that feeling after a poor night’s sleep where you do not feel quite like yourself. It turns out that sleep loss can be linked to social withdrawal and loneliness.
One study shows that sleep loss makes the person less likely to want to engage with other people and increases the urge to withdraw from social situations. Participants in the study were also more likely to feel anxious or in a low mood while sleep deprived.
While you sleep, your brain process and create memories. When you do not get enough sleep, your ability to focus and learn is diminished. It only takes 16 hours awake for cognitive performance and attention to decline.
Sleep deprivation also affects your long-term memory. If you’re cramming for a test the night before test day and you stay up all night to study, you may remember the information the next morning. But – by the end of the following week – you may have only retained one or two solid facts from your study session.
Sleep is a cornerstone of health, affecting all of the body’s systems directly or indirectly. Certain diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, have also been linked to sleep deprivation. If you want to live a long and healthy life, you will eventually need to learn how to develop healthy sleep patterns.
Tips for Healthier Sleep
Many people with sleep troubles might assume that the only solution is to request a strong sleeping pill from their doctor. However, regulating your sleep schedule can be done naturally. Keep reading for a few healthy sleep habits you can use to regulate your sleep schedule.
1. Create a Sleep Routine
The most important tip for healthier sleep is consistency. The exact time that you go to bed is flexible. Most studies suggest that 10 pm is the best time to fall asleep, with a wake-up time between 5:30 and 7:30 am.
Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning may sound easy, but many people find it extremely difficult to maintain a constant sleep routine. Try it for a week to see how quickly your body adjusts, using an alarm to stay consistent.
2. Exercise regularly.
Consistent exercise also helps you sleep. Studies show that after four or more weeks of exercising regularly, people with insomnia fell asleep faster, slept longer, and enjoyed better sleep quality.
Exercise helps regulate your circadian rhythm by resetting the body’s clock and boosting serotonin levels, which enable you to fall asleep. It also releases endorphins which mitigate the negative emotions in people with heightened stress and anxiety, allowing them to sleep better.
3. Eat well.
A balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is the only way to supply the body with all its essential vitamins and minerals. Without these, studies show that people are more likely to develop sleep disorders and report poor sleep quality.
Eating for a good night’s sleep considers the foods you eat and when you eat them. Eating a large meal right before bed interferes with your ability to fall asleep, and skipping meals might cause you to choose unhealthy foods to satisfy your cravings.
4. Cut out caffeine.
Consuming caffeine in moderation is perfectly normal and even brings certain health benefits. Two to three cups of coffee are the average recommended dose of caffeine. However, too much caffeine, especially late in the day, is more likely to disrupt your sleep.
Caffeine can also cause a vicious cycle wherein you drink coffee on a day when you are feeling low energy. That night, you maybe have a harder than normal time falling asleep and wake up groggy the next day. Then you need another cup of coffee to wake you up. And so the cycle continues.
5. Stay away from alcohol.
Another commonly used substance that interferes with sleep is alcohol. You may fall asleep quickly after a night out due to the chemical adenosine your brain produces after drinking. But soon, the adenosine fades, and you may find yourself awake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep.
Alcohol can also prevent you from entering deep sleep, including REM sleep, when the body processes memories and learning from the previous day.
6. Don’t nap if you can help it.
If you feel the constant desire to nap but find that you cannot sleep through the night afterward, you might want to consider cutting down or stopping naps altogether. Studies indicate that short naps – between 10 and 20 minutes – in the mid to late afternoon are the key to napping success. Otherwise, naps interfere with your circadian rhythm and prevent you from getting a full night’s sleep.
7. Use the bedroom only for sleep (and sex).
With an increasing number of people working from home, the line between personal life and work life is starting to blur. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard recommends turning the bedroom into a “sleep-inducing environment” by keeping all work-related materials out of your bed. This helps to strengthen the association between your bedroom and sleep, and will prevent you from stressing over work while trying to fall asleep!
8. Limit screen exposure in the evening.
These days, cell phones are one of life’s necessities. They keep us connected, informed, and entertained… but they also keep us awake. The blue light coming through your phone screen interferes with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Without melatonin, you may stay up long past your bedtime without even realizing it.
Ideally, you should stop using your phone about an hour before your designated bedtime. If you do not want to stop using your phone, try adding a blue light filtering app to mitigate the effects.
9. Keep the room at a comfortable, cool temperature.
You may have noticed that it’s easier to fall and stay asleep during the cooler months. At night, your body temperature naturally decreases. This is a signal from your body that it’s time to slow down and rest.
Studies show that sleeping in cooler temperatures – between 60 and 68 degrees – increases REM sleep quality. It may even help you look younger by increasing melatonin levels.
Sleep for Health
At times, sleep seems like such a solitary endeavor. You are around people all day, every day. Then you go to sleep and are all alone, just you and your thoughts.
You may not even realize that waking up in the middle of the night multiple times or being unable to fall asleep are signposts pointing to other aspects of your health and wellness. Maybe you start waking up in the middle of the night during a break-up because the increase in stress and depression interferes with your brain’s ability to turn off. Or maybe you spent the last several weeks chugging coffee to meet a deadline and find yourself frustrated every night at 10 pm when your brain refuses to shut down.
But you are not alone. Since the introduction of sleep medicine in 2004, an increasing number of people have been searching the web for healthy sleep solutions. Focusing on healthy sleep improves your quality of life, from the prevention of common diseases to an increase in mood and memory. Try a few of the healthy sleep aids in this article to take back control of your sleep schedule and see how much sleep truly affects your health.