Sleep, like exercise and a healthy diet, is vital to our well-being. But we often allow life’s demands to impinge upon our quality sleep time. New sleep habits can be adopted, though. Find out about the benefits of sleep for both physical and mental health, and learn effective strategies for falling asleep.
The Benefits of Sleep
We have so many demands on our time – school, jobs, family, errands, not to mention finding some time to relax. To fit everything in, we often sacrifice sleep. But sleep affects both mental and physical health. Like exercise and a healthy diet, it’s vital to your well-being.Of course, sleep helps you feel rested each day. But while you are sleeping, your brain and body do not just shut down. Internal organs and processes are hard at work throughout the night. Sleep can help you “lock in” everything you are studying and trying to remember.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at NIH.
When you are tired, you cannot function at your best. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes, and focus better.
“The fact is, when we look at well-rested people, they are operating at a different level than people trying to get by on one or two hours less nightly sleep,” says Mitler.“Loss of sleep impairs your higher levels of reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail,” Mitler explains.
Tired people tend to be less productive at work and school. They are at a much higher risk for traffic accidents. Lack of sleep also influences your mood, which can affect how you interact with others. A sleep deficit over time can even put you at greater risk for developing depression. But sleep is not just essential for the brain.
“Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at NIH. “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.”
Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease, and infections. Throughout the night, your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure rise and fall, a process that may be important for cardiovascular health. Your body releases hormones during sleep that help repair cells and control the body’s use of energy. These hormone changes can affect your body weight.
“Ongoing research shows a lack of sleep can produce diabetic-like conditions in otherwise healthy people,” says Mitler.
Recent studies also reveal that sleep can affect the efficiency of vaccinations. Twery described research showing that well-rested people who received the flu vaccine developed stronger protection against the illness.
A good night’s sleep consists of four to five sleep cycles. Each cycle includes periods of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when we dream. “As the night goes on, the portion of that cycle that is in REM sleep increases. It turns out that this pattern of cycling and progression is critical to the biology of sleep,” Twery says.
Sleep can be disrupted by many things. Stimulants such as caffeine or certain medications can keep you up. Distractions such as electronics – especially the light from TVs, cell phones, tablets and e-readers – can prevent you from falling asleep.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age, and getting a full night of quality sleep is important. Infants generally require about sixteen hours a day, while teenagers need about nine hours on average. For most adults, seven to eight hours a night appears to be the best amount of sleep.
The amount of sleep a person needs also increases if he or she has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt,” which is a lot like being overdrawn at a bank. Eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid. We do not seem to adapt to getting less sleep than we need; while we may get used to a sleep-depriving schedule, our judgment, reaction time, and other functions are still impaired. If you are a student, that means that sleep-deprivation may prevent you from studying, learning, and performing as well as you can.
People tend to sleep more lightly and for shorter time spans as they get older, although they generally need about the same amount of sleep as they needed in early adulthood. Experts say that if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you have not had enough sleep. If you routinely fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, you probably have severe sleep deprivation, possibly even a sleep disorder. “Microsleeps,” or very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, are another mark of sleep deprivation. In many cases, people are not aware that they are experiencing microsleeps. The widespread practice of “burning the candle at both ends” in western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm.
Many studies make it clear that sleep deprivation is dangerous. Sleep-deprived people who are tested by using a driving simulator or by performing a hand-eye coordination task perform as badly as or worse than those who are intoxicated. Sleep deprivation also magnifies alcohol’s effects on the body, so a fatigued person who drinks will become much more impaired than someone who is well rested.
Driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since drowsiness is the brain’s last step before falling asleep, driving while drowsy can – and often does – lead to disaster. Caffeine and other stimulants cannot overcome the effects of severe sleep deprivation. The National Sleep Foundation says that if you have trouble keeping your eyes focused, if you cannot stop yawning, or if you cannot remember driving the last few miles, you are probably too drowsy to drive safely.
Many people, especially those who feel stressed, anxious, or overworked, have a hard time falling asleep and/or staying asleep, and this can shorten the amount of time and the quality of sleep when it actually comes. The following tips can help you get to sleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling well rested:
- Set a schedule – Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Disrupting this schedule may lead to insomnia. “Sleeping in” on weekends also makes it harder to wake up early on Monday morning because it resets your sleep cycles for a later awakening.
- Exercise – Try to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day. Daily exercise often helps people sleep, although a workout soon before bedtime may interfere with sleep. For maximum benefit, try to get your exercise about 5 to 6 hours before going to bed.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed – Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and keeps people awake. Sources of caffeine include coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, diet drugs, and some pain relievers. Smokers tend to sleep very lightly and often wake up in the early morning due to nicotine withdrawal. Alcohol robs people of deep sleep and REM sleep and keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep.
- Relax before bed – A warm bath, reading, or another relaxing routine can make it easier to fall sleep. It’s also a good idea to put away books, homework, and screens (computer and phone) at least 30 minutes before bed. You can train yourself to associate certain restful activities with sleep and make them part of your bedtime ritual.
- Sleep until sunlight – If possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep.
- Do not lie in bed awake – If you cannot get to sleep, do not just lie in bed. Do something else, like reading or listening to music, until you feel tired. (Avoid digital screens, though: watching TV, and being on the computer or a smartphone are too stimulating and will actually make you more wakeful.) The anxiety of being unable to fall asleep can actually contribute to insomnia.
- Control your room temperature – Maintain a comfortable temperature in the bedroom. Extreme temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep.
- Screen out noise and light – Sleep with earplugs and use an eye pillow to drown out any bright lights and noise of loud roommates, etc.
- See a doctor if your sleeping problem continues – If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Your primary care physician may be able to help you; if not, you can probably find a sleep specialist at a major hospital near you. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so you can finally get that good night’s sleep you need.
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