Sleep Your Way to Better Health Tonight

12 tips to help you wake up rested and refreshed every day

By Nicole Ferring Holovach, MS, RD, LDN

 

You’re probably used to hearing that eating right and exercising regularly are the keys to maintaining good health. You may also know that decreasing stress levels can improve well-being. But sleep is a piece of the health puzzle that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The next time you delay bedtime in favor of watching the late, late, late show, remember this: Chronic sleep loss can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, cancer, depression and impaired immunity. Plus, nearly 20 percent of all serious motor vehicle accident injuries can be attributed to drowsy driving. Bed should be looking a lot more appealing.

For something as enjoyable as sleep, Americans as a group aren’t getting enough. In the U.S., an estimated 50 to 70 million adults experience chronic sleep loss. In 2009 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey of individuals in 12 states in which more than 35 percent of participants reported averaging less than seven hours of sleep and more than 37 percent of respondents indicated they unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once a month.

Busy, stressed-out overachievers often tout, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But the irony is that chronic lack of sleep can speed arrival to that “eternal sleep,” as Shakespeare called it, not to mention decrease their quality of life en route. The fact is, sleep is vital to keeping us alive and healthy. While we sleep, our bodies undergo critical growth and repair processes, including neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells. Lack of sufficient sleep decreases and can even stop neurogenesis.

Sleep deprivation impairs learning and memory, decreases attention span and makes it difficult to keep emotions in check. Sleep is crucial to a strong immune system—sleep deprivation and poor quality of sleep can compromise the immune system, making you more likely to get sick and lengthen recovery time. Sleep also affects hormone and blood sugar regulation, making it an important factor in controlling appetite and weight as well as controlling and preventing type 2 diabetes.

The effect of lost sleep is cumulative. Losing one to two hours of sleep per night can result in a sleep debt that only adequate sleep can offset. And don’t fall for the “catching up on weekends” sleep myth. A single night of solid sleep will not pay off a sleep debt. The effects of sleep deprivation can last a lot longer than what you'd imagine. For the chronically sleep deprived, it might take a few months to get back into a natural sleep pattern.

Now, as to how much you need, there is no one-size-fits-all—it varies according to the individual. However, the general guideline offered by the National Sleep Foundation is that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. An indicator that you might not be getting enough sleep is your reliance on an alarm clock. Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier. If you still need an alarm clock, push your bedtime up by 15 minutes increments until you no longer need an alarm to wake up.

Have trouble falling or staying asleep? These 12 tips will help you drift off more easily into dreamland—and stay there all night long.

 

Go to Bed When You’re Tired

Many people are naturally tired earlier in the evening, but they feel like they haven’t had any time to themselves and don’t want to go to bed. There is too much to do—favorite television shows to watch, blogs to read and laundry to sort. But pushing through evening grogginess often results in a second wind and before you know it, it’s midnight and you have to get up in six hours.

 

Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Humans possess an internal 24-hour clock called the circadian rhythm that partly determines the time when people fall asleep and when they wake. Going to bed at the same time every night helps set this clock so that your body expects sleep at a certain time night after night. Similarly, waking up at the same time every morning helps train your body to rise at a particular time, helping curb the daily battle with your alarm clock. Weekends can be difficult, but going to bed even within an hour of your weeknight bedtime can help you stick to the routine.

 

Reviewed by Elaine Brown, MD on January 14, 2014
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