Many of us have started the new year resolving to get more exercise or eat a healthier diet but how many of us resolve to get adequate amounts of sleep? Sleep is often the first thing that busy people squeeze out of their schedules. Sleep affects our mental and physical health, our quality of life and even our personal safety. Sleep deprivation can interfere with our daily routine and activities by negatively affecting our performance, thinking, mood and can reduce our ability to function at our best. “Sleep is not a luxury,” says Dr. James O’Brien, medical director of the Boston SleepCare Center in Waltham, Mass. “It’s a necessity for optimal functioning.”
We may all be under the misconception that while we sleep, our bodies are simply resting and recuperating from our daily activities and stress. However, during sleep our bodies are actively working to support healthy brain function and to maintain our physical and emotional well being. While sleeping, your brain is forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information while it catalogues the previous day’s experiences, primes your memory and regulates the release of hormones that effect energy, mood and mental acuity. A good night’s sleep enhances our learning abilities and problem solving skills. Sleep aids in decision making, enhances creativity and improves our attention spans.
Sleep affects our physical health in important ways. While we sleep, our bodies heal and repair our heart and blood vessels. Sleep deficiency can be linked to heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Lack of adequate sleep can also increase the risk of obesity by affecting the hormones that control hunger. Insulin levels are another good reason to get to bed on time. Inadequate amounts of sleep can lead to higher than normal blood sugar levels which can increase your risk of diabetes. Immune system response is also dependent on sleep to defend our bodies against harmful foreign invaders and protect us from common infections.
Sleep deficiency can alter activity in the brain. It affects our problem solving and decision making skills, our emotions and our behaviors. Children and teens who are experiencing sleep deprivation tend to have problems getting along with their peers, have problems paying attention and may lack motivation resulting in lower grades, elevated stress levels and low self esteem. Adults and children who get adequate amounts of sleep perform better during the day, are more productive at work or school, finish tasks more quickly, have better reaction times, make less mistakes, are more decisive and are better at controlling emotions and behavior.
How do we go about improving our sleep habits? Start by making a commitment to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep. Analyze your sleep patterns and begin to make changes one step at a time to give your body time to adjust to the new standards.
- Set a regular bedtime. This will enable your body to get used to falling asleep and waking at the same time each day thereby resetting your internal clock. Sticking to a regular routine will reinforce your body’s natural response to the rhythms of day and night. Select a time that accommodates your life style. It can take several weeks for your body to fully adjust to the new schedule and as it does, you will begin to condition your body and brain for a set bedtime, and will begin to feel sleepy as the hour approaches, allowing you to fall asleep naturally and improving your quality of sleep. As much as possible, try to keep the same schedule on weekends. Staying up late and sleeping in can disrupt your body clock’s rhythm.
- Formulate a soothing bedtime routine. Following certain patterns every night helps to prepare your brain and body for bed. This could be a relaxing bath, a short meditation, a little yoga or gentle stretching or any pre-sleep ritual that helps reduce the stress and worries of the day. Avoid late night eating, stimulating TV shows or exercises that tend to over stimulate rather than prepare you for sleep and that sabotage your routine.
- Create a quiet, peaceful and restful environment. Turn your bedroom into your own personal sleep sanctuary by keeping the temperature cool & comfortable, reducing clutter and reserving the space for appropriate bedroom activities only. Darken the room completely. Your brain will sense that you are ready for sleep and will begin to secrete melatonin that primes your body for sleep and promotes relaxation Turn of the TV, the computer and your cell phone. Exposure to artificial light can disrupt the production of melatonin.
- Avoid sleep stealers within four hours of bedtime. These include caffeinated beverages, spicy foods, alcohol, smoking and late afternoon naps. Exercise should be limited to no more than three hours before your normal bedtime.
Individual sleep requirements vary. Generally, healthy adults function well with about sixteen hours of wakefulness and seven to eight hours of sleep nightly. Some individuals will require as little as six hours or as many as ten hours. Most children and adolescents require nine to ten hours of sleep each night. The restorative powers of a good night’s sleep on a regular basis should not be considered an option, but should be construed as essential to wellness as a healthy diet and exercise.