Lack of adequate, uninterrupted sleep is being called the biggest health crisis of our time by scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO).
They say two-thirds of us are suffering physical and mental damage due to sleeplessness. Thankfully, you can start making changes today to reverse this trend. A resolution for better sleep could result in your most profound health improvement ever.
In this article, we’ll explore the health problems lack of sleep can cause, and go over tips to improve your sleep quality, starting tonight.
During sleep, we heal, convert new knowledge and skills into memory, and ward off disease, according to 20-plus years of sleep studies. Everyone over age 18 needs at least seven hours of sleep a night to get these sleep benefits and ensure our health and longevity.
The Alarming Effects of Sleeplessness
Before exploring how you can get better sleep, let’s discuss the gravity of sleeplessness. Sleep deprivation and fragmented sleep literally demolish your immune system, double your risk of cancer, quadruple your risk of stroke, and contribute to all major psychiatric conditions, explains leading sleep scientist Matthew Walker in his book, “Why We Sleep.”
The implications are staggering. Lack of sleep is a key factor in whether you will develop Alzheimer’s Disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. After only a week of sleeping only five hours a night instead of seven to nine, your mortality rate rises 65 percent!
The scientific data is astonishing and alarming. To learn more about our brain functions during the four stages of sleep, various sleep disorders, and the effects of a sleepless lifestyle, read the book. The data explains why sleep is crucial to your health. It also offers advice for getting better sleep.
Minor changes or lifestyle adjustments can help to get seven to nine hours of sleep and the improved health and longevity sleep provides.
Changes and Lifestyle Adjustments for Better Sleep
Like any lifestyle change, it helps to start with small, measurable goals. Try one of these tips from Walker.
Sleep on a set schedule. Try to go to bed and rise at the same time daily. Walker’s top tip is setting an alarm to initiate your bedtime routine. If you can, eliminate your morning alarm because alarms cause cardiovascular stress, he says.
If you need an alarm to get up on time, he says don’t ever hit the snooze button. The stress to your heart compounds with every snooze.
Set the mood. Your body needs a dark, cool room for sleep; two or three degrees cooler than the rest of your home. Remove electronics, TV, and other distractions – even clocks. If the clock must stay, face it away from you.
You also need two hours free of blue light before bedtime! Blue light from cell phones and other electronics stops the release of melatonin, the chemical that tells your brain it’s time for sleep. Walker says apps that lowers blue light exposure as the evening gets later are an alternative if you cannot block out two hours before bedtime.
Get sunlight and try to mimic nature’s rhythms. Morning sunlight and dim evening lighting are key for falling asleep easily. In rainy areas like the Pacific Northwest, many people use full spectrum LED lights to get enough morning “sunlight.” Many of these lights increase in brightness over time, allowing you to wake up naturally as you might with the sun.
Create a relaxing nighttime ritual. Reading a book or listening to music are recommended for winding down. Meditation is both restful and increases your body’s melatonin levels. To trick your body temperature into dropping the two to three degrees, take a hot bath before bed!
Avoid alcohol before bed, or entirely if possible. Even one drink before bed blocks heavy sleep in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage. Heavier alcohol use causes sedation, which Walker points out is not akin to sleep. You’ll wake from sedation throughout the night, disrupting the sleep pattern necessary for healing. Worse yet, heavy drinking causes impaired nighttime breathing and is linked to sleep apnea. Snoring is a good reason to talk to your care provider about a sleep study.
Avoid nicotine and caffeine. When you use nicotine, you can only get light sleep and likely wake up early due to withdrawal. Caffeine, which Walker calls the most abused drug of our time, lasts in our bodies five to eight hours! A small change like replacing afternoon coffee with herbal tea can make a huge difference in sleep quality.
Avoid medications that delay or disrupt sleep, including those for high blood pressure, heart conditions, and asthma, or take them earlier. Herbal and over-the-counter remedies can also cause sleeplessness. Try taking them earlier or talk to your care provider about other options.
Avoid sleeping pills, as they cause sedation, but sedation is not sleep. Emerging studies link sleeping pills to an increase in cancer. Additionally, the grogginess caused by being sedated instead of sleeping is linked to more annual automobile wrecks than all types of impaired driving combined.
Avoid large meals and drinks before bed. Indigestion interferes with sleep and waking to urinate disrupts sleep. Try an earlier or lighter dinner and see if your sleep improves!
Exercise, but not right before bedtime. Half an hour or more of exercise daily improves sleep and overall health, but it’s best if you have two to three hours of rest before bedtime.
Don’t nap after 3 p.m. or you may struggle to fall asleep. Naps can help us catch up on sleep, but they also disrupt sleep if taken too late in the day.
If you’re a night owl, ask your employer if you can start work later in the day. Some people aren’t wired to rise early. Pushing night owls to be productive in the early morning is fruitless.
The book devotes a section to lost productivity caused by drowsiness and changes organizations like NASA and Google have made to accommodate night owls. This data might bolster your request.
Don’t lie in bed awake. It’s estimated over 40 million Americans have insomnia. The two most common triggers of insomnia are anxiety/emotional worry and emotional distress. If you lie in bed sleepless over 20 minutes or are consumed with worry or anxiety, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy (not screen time).
The anxiety of sleeplessness causes more sleeplessness, thus the recommendation for removing clocks from the bedroom. Try deep belly breathing exercises for an immediate calming.
If sleep deprivation or insomnia concern you, please talk to your care provider. They may order a sleep study, called polysomnography, to monitor your brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing, and eye and leg movements. They can also help with issues involving medications, nicotine, or alcohol.
May you rest well tonight!Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels