Our society has undergone a drastic change in the last several decades when it comes to sleep. It has become a 24/7, sometimes-chaotic jumble of life, relationships, careers, activities, and attempts at rest and relaxation. Days blend into one another and, for many, work has become such a predominant part of who we are that working late or haphazard hours has become commonplace. In such an environment, sleep is now seen as a necessary nuisance instead of the solid, regularly-scheduled, eight-hour reprieve it once was.
We have become a nation that regards sleep as an obstacle or interruption to accomplishing something more important (bringing work home) or enjoyable (streaming TV programming). As a result, more and more of us are getting insufficient sleep, affecting our work performance, our human relationships, and, most importantly, our health – and for the worst. That’s something to think about with March being Sleep Awareness Month, per the National Sleep Foundation.
Children are affected just as adults are, and the widespread lack of sleep is having a direct effect on our health and behavior, and, in the case of children, on their development. Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), chronic sleep loss or sleeping disorders are affecting as many as 70 million Americans, reportedly resulting in an annual cost of $16 billion in health-care expenses and $50 billion in lost productivity.
A Brief Science Lesson on Sleep
There’s really no way around the fact that we should be spending about one-third of our life sleeping, which works out to about eight hours a night (or eight hours a day, if you work the redeye shift). Both our brains and body need that down time, even if it’s not really “down” time. Actually, our brain (and, in a sense, our body) is hard at work during that time, performing tasks, such as forming the pathways that are required for learning and creating new memories and new insights, per NIH.
You’ve probably heard it said that sleep is comprised of different stages that keep cycling through during the night, and that there are two types of sleep – rapid-eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, the latter of which occurs during three different stages. It is during stage 1 of non-REM sleep that we are most easily awakened, and, it is in stage 3 non-REM sleep that we are in our deepest stage of sleep, a time in which it is most difficult for us to be awakened.
As for REM sleep, that comes about an hour to an hour and a half after falling asleep, and is the stage that grows longer in duration as we sleep throughout the night. As we go to sleep and then fall asleep, two compounds in particular are at work – adenosine, which helps induce sleep when needed, and melatonin, which is a hormone that makes us feel naturally sleepy at night. As NIH describes it, it is part of our “internal biological clock.”
It is when these cycles, stages, patterns, etc. get disrupted that we run into trouble.
Sleep Your Way to Better Health
Here’s a look at how good sleep habits can benefit you (it would help to stay awake, though, while reading these):
- Help with health. Numerous studies have shown a link between lack of sleep and significant health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. Also, at least one study has shown that sufficient quality sleep is an effective guard against a cold virus.
- Improved sex life. Aha, got your attention! A National Sleep Foundation poll found that one in four people say their sex life suffers from a lack of sleep. There’s also data that suggests impaired sleep among men can lead to a drop in testosterone levels, per webmd.com.
- Reduction in pain. A loss of sleep has been linked to lower pain thresholds. Of course, if the pain is keeping you up at night (ever broken a wrist or sprained an ankle, by chance?), you might want to get ahold of a medication that combines a sleep aid with a pain reliever.
- Reduced injury risk. Take auto mishaps, for example. The Institute of Medicine, per webmd.com, estimates that drowsy driving contributes to one of every five U.S. auto accidents, which is about 1 million crashes a year.
- Weight control. Several factors can influence this. One is behavioral – if we are excessively tired, we will likely skip a planned workout and/or go for fast food or an unhealthy kitchen quick-fix, either of which will pack on calories. Another factor: the hormone “leptin,” which plays a key role in making us feel full when we eat, per webmd.com. A lack of sleep means a decrease in leptin and, therefore, longer-lasting food cravings.
- Better Thinking. Sleep loss has been shown to impair cognition, focus, and decision-making. On another front, it will affect your mood for the worse. Just ask anybody who knows you well.
7 Tips for a Consistently Better Night’s Sleep
And now, to help you achieve the above, here are some suggestions adapted from sleepfoundation.org aimed at bolstering your sleep amount and quantity:
- Adhere to a sleep schedule, aiming for eight hours. Same time to bed; same time up in the morning. Weekends included.
- Avoid late-afternoon naps, if possible. That’s best accomplished for someone who works “normal” daytime hours, although such short stints of shut-eye can be practical for those who work late at night and perhaps into the morning.
- Decide on a relaxing bedtime ritual. That doesn’t mean 30 minutes of AC/DC cranked up on the headphones right before hitting the pillow. Try some easy-listening music or reading a book. Yes, people still do those things.
- Exercise. Morning, afternoon, or evening. Just get it done however and whenever, but leave at least a couple hours between the end of your workout and going to bed.
- Fix your room environment to help you sleep. This includes setting the thermostat properly, getting rid of noise, and dealing with light either in or coming into the room.
- Use a comfortable mattress and pillow(s).
- No alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco right before bed. In fact, you can add a heavy meal to that list.