Do you get enough quality sleep? If you're not sure, or are "convinced" that you can get by just fine on less than 8 hours of sleep every night, you may want to consider upgrading your bedtime routine.
The reality is, research shows that chronic sleep deprivation—consistently getting around 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night—is associated with an increased risk of immune dysfunction, weight gain, food cravings, heart disease, respiratory infections, cancer, car accidents, reproductive dysfunction, memory loss, and Alzheimer's disease. Not getting enough sleep can reduce the effectiveness of your medications, increase your chances of catching the flu, and worsen subjective pain. And according to the National Sleep Foundation, a lack of sleep is actually considered a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes!
Meanwhile, a good night's rest has been shown to do everything from assisting with weight loss to promoting longevity. Clearly there's much more to it than just keeping you from feeling cranky in the morning! So no matter the reason, assessing and improving your sleep is a great place to start in potentially improving your health.
But even if you accept that good sleep enhances health and bad sleep detracts from it, this knowledge may not be enough to help you get a better night's rest. How exactly do you fall asleep and stay asleep easier? If you struggle with this, you're not alone—about 45% of Americans report that they don't get enough sleep on some or most days of the week.
Because sleep is such an essential component to overall health and wellness—and a highly metabolically active state—sleep scientists and other researchers have spent decades investigating how to help people get better Zzz's. The following research-based strategies have been shown to improve sleep by helping the body regulate important metabolic, hormonal, and neuro-chemical processes involved in beauty rest.
Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every day helps your body stay aligned with its internal biological clock, known as your circadian rhythm. Sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr. Walker states in his book (Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams) that sleep consistency is the most important element of good "sleep hygiene."
Our body temperature naturally falls as we prepare for and enter sleep. So, sleeping in a cool room can help you enter and cycle through the various sleep stages (rapid eye movement sleep, also known as REM sleep or dream sleep, and non-REM sleep). Set your bedroom temperature to around 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit—anything warmer could disrupt your rest.
You should also take steps to ensure that your room is dark—pitch dark, if at all possible. Ambient darkness helps regulate your circadian rhythm and sleep-related hormones, which are highly sensitive to light. So, remove night lights, install blackout curtains, wear an eye mask, and leave the TV, laptop, tablet, and cell phones out of the bedroom.
Other things that should stay out of the bedroom? Anything that doesn't involve rest or romance! Don't use your bedroom for work, laundry, movie-watching, or Internet-surfing. To ensure that you're creating a relaxing atmosphere that's conductive to restful sleep, only go into your bedroom when you're sleepy or if you're going to be intimate with your partner.
Getting 10-20 minutes of early morning sun without sunglasses on can help your body regulate certain sleep-related hormones like melatonin. An early morning walk is a great way to feel more refreshed, energized, and awake before you start your day.
We evolved to go to sleep when the sun goes down. But the advent of electricity means that we can stay up a lot later—and surrounded by a lot more light! Unfortunately, excessive exposure to bright lights, especially LED light and blue light emissions from digital devices, can throw off our sleep-wake cycle.
In the evening, start dimming or turning off lights in your house within about one to three hours of bedtime. Avoid using televisions, computers, and smartphones within an hour of bedtime, and consider installing blue light-blocking apps on your devices that will naturally change the screen contrast depending on the time of day.
You can't "make up" for a lack of sleep by sleeping in the weekends or taking daytime naps. However, research suggest that short naps can boost cognitive performance and mood, so you don't have to swear off catnaps altogether if you're a fan.
Just make sure not to nap past three p.m., since this will prevent you from feeling too wide awake later in the evening when bedtime comes around. Also, keep your naps short—ideally 30 minutes or less. Napping for longer may actually impair your health and disrupt the quality of your nighttime sleep.
Studies have found that sleeping on a good mattress can improve sleep quality and reduce aches and pains. And while you don't have to break the bank to get a good one, be sure to shop around and find a mattress that is comfortable for yourself and your partner (if applicable).
By the way, did you know that if your mattress is over 10 years old, then it most likely contains up to 10 pounds of dead skin? To make sure your mattress stays comfortable, clean, and optimally supportive, be sure to replace it with a new one every 5 to 8 years.
Chronic stress leads to elevated circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been associated with things like disrupted sleep patterns and weight gain. To make matters works, insufficient sleep is also considered a major stressor on the body.
In other words, if you're stressed out you don't sleep as well, and if you're not sleeping well, you can end up feeling more stressed!
Managing stress and adopting healthy coping strategies is important for getting a better night's rest and treating insomnia. Great ways to reduce your stress levels include meditation, journaling, listening to calming music, taking a hot bath, and adopting a relaxing bedtime routine, which can incorporate many of these stress-busting strategies.
Beyond serving as another powerful stress-reliever, exercise can also improve your sleep by helping you feel tired at night. Research consistently shows that regular physical activity (including strength training and aerobic exercise) is as effective if not more effective than sleeping pills for helping people fall and stay asleep.
However, you should avoid exercising within two to three hours of your bedtime, because physical activity can make you more alert and raise stimulating hormones like epinephrine and adrenaline. Schedule your daily workouts earlier in the day so your body has time to wind down.
Eating a diet that's rich in essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals ensures that your body gets all the ingredients it needs to create the hormones, neurotransmitters, and other compounds that play a role in your sleep-wake cycle.
Additionally, it's not just what you eat, but when you eat. Late-night eating or eating large meals too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep quality by altering blood sugar levels and impairing the release of melatonin and human growth hormone. So, avoid eating or drinking within about 2-3 hours of bedtime.
Also, don't be fooled by that evening nightcap. Alcohol is a sedative, and while it may help you fall asleep faster, it will disrupt your sleep cycles and lead to more fractured, lower quality sleep. Drinking alcohol can also worsen sleep-related problems like sleep apnea and snoring.
Lastly, keep in mind that caffeine is a stimulant drug. If you're not able to function in the morning without drinking coffee, consider employing these other strategies to improve your sleep rather than asking for a double shot of espresso. Caffeine has a half-life of about six hours, meaning that it takes your body that long to metabolize 50% of the caffeine you consume. So, if you do choose to drink caffeine, consume it in moderation and don't have it past mid-morning.