What ought to be the easiest healthy habit to adopt – sleeping – is probably one of the hardest for most Americans.
According to finding from a ResMed-Dr. Oz study of more than 20,000 people, 79% of Americans get fewer than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. The study also reported women get an average of 24 more minutes of sleep than men – six hours, nine minutes versus five hours, 45 minutes – and a half hour of exercise relates to an additional 15 extra minutes of sleep. Do those numbers sound woefully low to you, or do you dream of getting that much sleep?
Not getting enough sleep doesn’t just take a toll on your health, it also has significant financial costs. A study of five industrialized countries done by the RAND Corporation found the U.S. loses $411 billion per year – the highest of the countries studied – due to insufficient sleep.
When it comes to wealth and health, sleep is often one of the most important habits to get right, yet so few do. In this article we’ll discuss the reasons for getting a proper night’s rest and how you can make simple changes to improve your sleep.
Why do we sleep?
We know we ought to sleep and many of us savor it, but why do we sleep in the first place? While scientists don’t fully understand the reasons for this very important activity, they have proposed several theories for why we sleep.
- Repair and restore. Sleep is when the body does most of its maintenance, repairs, and building within cells and tissues, including muscle. Some research also suggests that the brain cleans out waste products during sleep.
- Conserve energy. Energy metabolism is reduced by as much as 10% in humans when we sleep. Sleeping to conserve energy may have been an evolutionary adaptation that also brought about other favorable adaptations, such as brain growth.
- Brain plasticity. Scientists are exploring how sleep is related to changes in the brain’s structure and organization. No matter your age, sleep may have an impact on your brain’s ability to learn, remember, and perform tasks.
What are sleep cycles?
When we sleep, the brain cycles through non-REM (rapid eye movement) and REM sleep. Within non-REM sleep there are three phases: falling asleep, light sleep, and deep sleep. Deep sleep phases are the most restorative, as this is when tissue repair and growth happens, hormones are released, and energy is replenished.
Approximately every 90 minutes you enter REM sleep, when your eyes move rapidly and breath rate increases. Scientists previously believed that dreaming occurred in REM sleep exclusively, but recent research has revealed that dreaming actually may occur in both non-REM and REM sleep. The same research also showed that the dreaming brain uses the same areas as the conscious brain for similar tasks, such as facial recognition. This finding suggests that the differences between the conscious and unconscious brain may be far less significant than previously thought.
How much sleep do you need?
Sleep often seems like a luxury or a nagging obligation – we know we should get to bed soon but first, we need to read this fascinating article about it online. But inadequate sleep can quickly lead to negative cognitive and physiological consequences, some dangerous. In response to lack of sleep, symptoms of depression, high blood pressure, seizures, and migraines get worse, according to Johns Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu. Additionally, the body’s sleep drive can force you into sleep, even for a few quick seconds. It seems harmless and possibly humorous to drift off for just a moment, but the consequences can be grave if you’re, say, driving a car.
Getting less sleep also throws your hormones out of whack. It’s no accident that food cravings are worse when you’re tired, as appetite-stimulating ghrelin is elevated and its counterbalance, leptin, is lowered. It thus may not be coincidence that sleeping less is associated with a higher BMI (body mass index).
Sleep needs depend on age, lifestyle, and health, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours per night based on a review of 300 scientific publications. How much sleep you need may take some trial-and-error – do you feel great with seven hours, or at your prime after eight? Test different sleep length times for a week at a time, keeping variables like your bedtime the same, and note how you feel. If you’re in a good mood, staying on task and doing quality work, and just feeling good, you’re probably getting enough sleep. On the other hand, if you need caffeine to get you through the day, find yourself dozing off, feel irritable, and/or experience intense food cravings, you might need more sleep.
How to sleep well
The NSF and Johns Hopkins recommend several ways to get better sleep:
- Keep your sleep schedule the same, even on weekends. Establish a bedtime and wake time that you can stick to once you have an idea of how much sleep you need.
- Exercise daily. Try to work out at least 30 minutes per day, and ideally midday or at least more than three hours prior to your bedtime.
- Take naps. Squeeze in midday rest before 3 p.m. and nap no longer than 30 minutes.
- Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Whether you read a relaxing book, meditate, or journal, a ritual helps signal to your body that it’s time for bed.
- Optimize your sleeping environment. Keep your bedroom cool and cover up any light that might seep in, including electronic lights. Use a sleep mask if it’s hard to eliminate all light in your room.
- Get comfortable. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows. Considering you ought to be spending a third of your life in bed, the ROI is high.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine’s effects can stick around for up to four hours, so make sure you have your afternoon coffee early or cut back your consumption if you are still having trouble falling asleep. And while a few drinks might seem like a silver bullet for falling asleep, alcohol has been shown to disrupt sleep later in the night, leading to net poorer quality sleep.
- Put down the phone. Stop using your phone and other electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Many phones or computers also now have “sleep mode” options that reduce the stimulating blue light.
- Use light dimmers and/or less intense lighting. Lowering the lights helps stimulate your body’s natural melatonin production.
- Have a light bedtime snack. Avoid low blood sugar when you sleep by eating a snack of 150-250 calories prior to bed. Tim Ferriss, author of Relax Life A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep suggests celery sticks with almond butter, a small orange and 5-8 almonds, or yogurt with an apple.
Manage stress for better sleep (and vice versa)
If stress has kept you up at night, you’re unfortunately like 43% of Americans who say stress interferes with their sleep. The American Psychological Association also found stress and sleep seem to be in a negative cycle with each other. Adults who get fewer than eight hours of sleep are more likely to feel irritable, angry, or overwhelmed than those who sleep at least eight hours. Getting enough sleep thus seems to be crucial to being less stressed, but managing your stress well is also important for better sleep.
As mentioned earlier, regular exercise is not only positively associated with better sleep, it’s also a great way to keep your stress in check. Beginning a regular mindfulness or meditation practice is another way to reduce stress and anxiety. Aim for five minutes per day to establish the habit – and increase from there. Apps like Headspace and Calm may help.
Just as you work to manage a monthly budget, keep a close eye on your sleep habits.
Much like your bottom line, establishing and sticking to a routine can net you big rewards.
Things to Consider:
- Experiment to find your optimal amount of sleep and then commit to a consistent sleep schedule.
- Add sleep-positive habits to your schedule, whether it’s exercise, cutting back on caffeine, curtailing evening electronics use, or meditation.
- Create an environment that makes getting a good night’s sleep easy.