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If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, rely on caffeine to get through the day, and stare at your alarm clock all night waiting for sleep to come, you're not alone. As many as 75 percent of us don't get enough quality sleep each night to feel refreshed and function at our best.
In this comprehensive guide, we attempt to explain the reasons behind the current sleeplessness epidemic, the extent to which it can affect your health and well-being, and specific steps you can take to get a better night's sleep starting tonight.
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If you constantly wake up tired, feel exhausted at work, or need a nap on a daily basis, there's a good chance you suffer from sleep deprivation. More likely than not, you fall short of the recommended number of hours of sleep you should be getting per night.
Individual sleep needs are largely determined by a combination of age, genetics, and lifestyle habits. Regarding age, the National Sleep Foundation established the following daily sleep recommendations broken down by age group:
NO. OF HOURS OF SLEEP REQUIRED
Infants under 3 months
14 to 17 hours
Infants between 4 and 11 months
12 to 15 hours
11 to 14 hours
10 to 13 hours
9 to 11 hours
8 to 10 hours
Adults between 18 and 65
7 to 9 hours
7 to 8 hours
Now, too many of us treat sleep as a luxury or even take pride when we manage only on five or six hours of sleep a night. As a result, between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. So, what's to account for this?
Well, one reason is due to the fact that work now travels home with us through various mobile devices. Long gone are the days where a clear division existed between work and our personal lives. Nowadays, we often work into the wee hours of the night at home, never truly disconnecting and "powering down" for the day.
When we finally do hit the sack, the stresses and worries of the day follow us straight to bed, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. And even when not working, we still don't take the time to properly wind down before bed as our devices also serve as entertainment centers for activities like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and, PlayStation.
Besides our compulsion to stay connected to the world 24/7, various studies have identified other lifestyle factors that interfere with getting a good night's sleep, including:
No question about it, sleep is as important to your overall health as diet and exercise. Individuals who routinely get less than seven hours of sleep per night can experience negative effects involving virtually every body system and function, such as the following:
Certain chemicals secreted during sleep help repair the daily wear and tear on the brain. A lack of sleep, however, prevents the brain from carrying out its restorative processes, which may lead to permanent cognitive decline and memory impairment.
The brain also uses the time we're asleep to process and create memories from stimuli experienced during waking hours. Without adequate sleep, the brain is unable to properly code this information into short and long-term memories.
Sleep also helps the glymphatic system to function correctly — the pathway in the body responsible for flushing waste products from the brain. Among the waste products removed is the protein beta-amyloid, which is known to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
You've probably experienced the sluggishness and mental fog that accompanies just one night of little to no sleep. If your sleep debt continues to build, it can become increasingly difficult to focus and perform even the most basic tasks:
What's worse, sleep-deprived individuals are often unaware of the deterioration in their performance and propensity for making mistakes.
It's no secret that insufficient sleep is likely to make you grumpy, irritable, and more emotional. It turns out this phenomenon has a scientific explanation...
Researchers from Tel Aviv University found that a lack of sleep affects a part of the brain called the amygdala, which handles regulating our emotions and discerning between negative and neutral images and information. Without the ability to distinguish between different types of data, everything assumes equal importance, which can lead to erratic mood fluctuations.
Even just one night of poor sleep can slow your reaction time and impair your physical movements. In fact, motor skill and reaction time tests of sleep-deprived individuals show a decline in function equal to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10, which is above the legal limit in all states! Moreover, lack of sleep also makes it harder to learn new motor tasks, which are encoded in our memory while we sleep.
A 2008 study concluded that chronic sleep deprivation correlates with a higher rate of obesity in both children and adults. First, it triggers strong responses to high-calorie foods in the part of the brain that controls the motivation to eat. Second, it reduces activity in the frontal cortex — the part of the brain that makes rational decisions and weighs the consequences of our actions.
The endocrine system handles the production of hormones that regulate everything from weight to the sleep-wake cycle. Any hormonal imbalance can negatively impact your mental and physical well-being.
When you don't get enough sleep, your body increases its production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can make you feel particularly anxious and fatigued, and make it more difficult to lose weight.
Lack of sleep also affects your blood glucose levels. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance where the body can no longer make use of the insulin it produces. Insulin resistance coupled with overeating and poor food choices is a leading risk factor for diabetes.
Experts believe insufficient sleep can interfere with the functioning of lymphocytes and other cells that comprise the immune system.
A 2008 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that individuals who slept less than seven hours a night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept eight hours a night. Another study of nearly 60,000 nurses found that those who slept less than five hours (or more than nine hours) had an increased risk of pneumonia.
Moreover, there may also be a link between chronic sleep deprivation and an increased risk of other serious health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. In fact, nearly 90 percent of individuals who suffer from insomnia also suffer from another chronic health condition.
Apart from all the ways sleep deprivation can affect you, it can also wreak havoc on the general public. Inadequate sleep exacts a huge economic toll on our society in terms of lost productivity and is a significant public safety hazard causing thousands of deaths and serious injuries each year.
A worker impaired by lack of sleep typically exhibits the following behaviors:
All these deficits increase the likelihood of workplace accidents. In fact, sleep deprivation causes an estimated 100,000 auto accidents each year and is believed to have played a role in the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill!
If you get less than seven hours of sleep per night, there's a good chance you're chronically sleep deprived. And even if you get the recommended seven to nine hours, you still may lack sufficient sleep if the quality of your sleep is poor. So, how do you gauge quality? Well, there are a few possible signs to watch out for:
Now, obviously these symptoms may be the result of other causes and that's why it's important to also identify behaviors that may be preventing you from having restorative sleep. Here are a few ways how:
The first thing virtually every sleep specialist recommends to his/her patients is to keep a sleep diary. Your entries should reflect every aspect of your sleeping behavior:
It's also important to detail your diet, caffeine and alcohol intake, and any prescription or over-the-counter medications you may have used as these can all impact sleep quality. After keeping a sleep diary for a week, you may be able to identify issues on your own. If not, the diary will provide your doctor with information that may help him/her determine the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Modern fitness trackers and smartphone apps offer an inexpensive way to evaluate the quality of your sleep without having to go to a sleep lab.
Among their many features, these devices use accelerometers to measure your movements during the night to determine which of the main stages of sleep you're in (light, deep or REM sleep). But note these devices only provide a rough approximation and extraneous movements, such as a pet jumping onto your bed or your bed partner moving can skew results.
Sleep trackers are useful in making you more aware of the quality of your sleep and can serve as a starting point for a conversation with your doctor. That said, they should never be used to diagnose sleep disorders.
Without the artificial constraints of an alarm clock and other disruptions, you'll naturally sleep as long as you need to feel rested. And when you sleep this way a few times, you'll intuitively know how much sleep you actually need versus think you need.
The first step to figuring out the number of hours of sleep you need to feel fully rested is to set aside a week or two where you know you won't have to be anywhere at a certain time, such as when you're on vacation.
With your freed-up schedule, make a point of going to bed at the same time every night and note when you naturally wake up in the morning. After giving yourself a few days to recover from your sleep debt, you should start to see a pattern emerge of the average amount of sleep you need each night to feel at your best. The rest simply comes down to math...
For example, if you average 9 hours of sleep per night and you have to be up by 6 am, you need to be in bed no later than 9 pm to get the right amount of sleep specific to your body.
Before we dive into specific steps to help protect yourself from sleep disorders and attain the best sleep possible, it's worth mentioning that having purpose in your life is the number one contributing factor to getting a good night's sleep. Without knowing your life purpose, there's a limit to how much the following tips can help you.
Indeed, one study of 825 older adults found that those who felt they had a reason to get up in the morning and felt positive about their past and future tended to have better sleep quality and fewer sleep disorders. While the study focused on older adults, the same is likely true of all age groups.
So, before incorporating the following steps into your daily routine, make sure you have this part of your life figured out.
Besides this step, optimizing your sleep comes down to two main factors: creating an environment conducive to sleep and preparing for sleep in the right way. Let's look into each of these areas and touch on some other important points as well:
To increase your chances of quality sleep, it's important to create an environment designed to help the mind and body relax and let go of the stresses of the day:
Believe it or not, something as simple as the color of the walls in your bedroom can influence how well you sleep. While bright, intense colors may work well as an accent in a living room, they're not the best choice for a bedroom. Bright colors tend to stimulate the brain and make us feel more energized, which makes it harder to fall asleep. In contrast, muted earth tones, soft blues, and buttery yellows help create a calm environment conducive to rest and relaxation.
While it's perfectly acceptable to economize in certain areas, mattresses and pillows aren't one of them. Considering we spend approximately one-third of our lives in bed, it's worth spending a little extra money to ensure your comfort year in and year out.
So how do you know when it's time to upgrade your mattress? Well, they're a few tell-tale signs to watch out for:
Even if your mattress seems perfectly fine, you should still consider replacing it at least every 5 to 8 years. But before heading to the mattress store, make sure to do some research to ensure you get the best mattress for your body and preferred sleeping position.
Just like a car, you shouldn't be afraid to take the mattress for a test drive by lying on it for 10 to 15 minutes before making a decision. Ultimately, the right mattress is one that provides enough support so you don't feel any pressure on your back and hips.
While not as big of a financial investment, your pillow should get as much consideration as your mattress. When choosing a pillow, the position you normally sleep in really comes into play.
For example, back sleepers should opt for a thinner pillow to prevent the head from pushing too far forward. In contrast, side sleepers should go with a firm pillow to keep the head from falling against the shoulder. Ultimately, the best pillow is one that keeps the head in a neutral position and supports the natural curvature of the cervical spine.
Experts recommend replacing your pillow every 12 to 18 months as old pillows don't provide the same amount of support for your neck and can contain dust mites, mold, and mildew that can exacerbate allergies and leave you sneezing all night.
Would you believe the arrangement of your bedroom can also play a role in how well you sleep? Having your bed positioned too close to the door is more likely to disturb you and stimulate your "fight or flight" response from activity going on just outside the room. The best position for your bed is actually farther back so you're not in direct path of the door but still within line of sight.
Make sure to set aside some time to thoroughly clean your bedroom as it's hard to feel calm and relaxed when staring at piles of clutter. Dusting, vacuuming, and changing the sheets weekly will also help ease allergy symptoms, which can disrupt your sleep. If your allergies are particularly severe, consider purchasing an air purifier to help eliminate airborne allergens.
We love to treat our pets as family but allowing Fluffy or Fido to share the bed is bad news as they can disrupt your sleep without you even knowing it whenever they move around the room.
Moreover, the pet fur on your bedding can contribute to allergy symptoms and you may even find yourself waking up with more aches and pains as you alter your sleeping position to accommodate your cat or dog.
While we all rely on electronics for communication, information, and entertainment, we should strive to make our bedroom an electronics-free zone.
The low-level light from standby power buttons, the noise of alerts and notifications, and the temptation to read just one more article online all hinder you from sleeping well. Tablets, smartphones, and other electronics also emit blue light, which can interfere with your body's production of melatonin and make it harder for you to fall asleep.
Many of us look at the bed as a comfortable place to read, watch television, study, or catch up on work emails. All these activities stimulate the brain and cause you to associate your bed with activities other than sleep. To make falling asleep easier, experts recommend restricting bed activities to sleep and intimacy only. But if you can't do without reading a page or two before turning off the light, pick material that's not too engrossing.
As the sleep-wake cycle is largely regulated by light, it's good practice to keep your bedroom as dark as possible to create the right sleep environment.
Now, if you live in a big city, on a busy street, or work a shift that requires you to sleep during the day, getting your room dark enough to promote deep sleep can be a challenge. In these instances, blackout curtains or blackout shades can help block any outside light interfering with your sleep. For a less expensive option, consider a sleep mask.
Our body temperature naturally falls as we sleep and starts to rise again once it's time to wake up. To help signal the brain to prepare for restful sleep, try lowering your thermostat 5° to 10°F right before bedtime and keep it at under 70°F throughout the night.
Women suffering from menopausal hot flashes or night sweats may want to lower the temperature even more.
Environmental noises can have both positive and negative effects on our sleep. For example, the gentle sound of rain can help lull you to sleep while the siren from an ambulance may jolt you wide awake. Even sounds barely noticed during the day such as a dripping faucet can be enough to keep you from falling asleep at night.
Many sleep experts suggest covering the face of your alarm clock or turning it away from you while sleeping. If you have trouble falling asleep, having that constant reminder of how little time you have left until you have to get up can create sleep anxiety and make it even harder to doze off.
Preparing for a restful night of sleep actually starts the minute you wake up in the morning! The amount and timing of light exposure, when and what you eat and drink, and your physical activity level all play a role in hormone production and other bodily processes that control your sleep-wake cycle:
Melatonin — a hormone secreted by the pineal gland — plays a significant role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. As our melatonin level increases, we start to feel sleepy and become more alert as it diminishes.
Light exposure, especially sunlight, has a direct effect on melatonin production. Just getting outside for 5 to 30 minutes in the morning can help lower the amount of melatonin and make you feel more awake as a result.
In contrast, limiting your exposure to natural and artificial light in the evening will help trigger your brain's production of melatonin and prepare your body for sleep. One way to achieve this is to install a dimmer with a timer on your lights and have it set to automatically start lowering the lights two to three hours before bedtime.
You should also limit your use of computers, smartphones, and other electronics starting two hours before you intend to sleep as these devices emit blue light that can inhibit the production of melatonin.
You'll naturally feel more refreshed and energized when you go to bed and get up at a consistent time that's in sync with your body's natural sleep-wake cycle. Even altering your sleep and wake times by an hour or two by sleeping in on the weekend is enough to disrupt your circadian rhythm and create the same effect as jet lag.
If you find yourself so engrossed in reading, watching television, or surfing the internet that you overlook your bedtime, try setting an alarm on your watch or phone to remind you. After several weeks of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, you may find you no longer have to rely on an alarm clock to wake you up in the morning.
Keeping a consistent schedule in other aspects of your life, such as exercise and meal times, is also important as these activities affect hormone production and other aspects of your sleep-wake cycle.
Also, if you're someone who experiences afternoon or post-dinner slumps, try to overcome your drowsiness by engaging in mildly stimulating activities such as taking a short walk, working on a favorite hobby, or talking with a friend on the phone. But if you can't resist taking naps, be sure to limit them to 15 or 20 minutes and then only in the early afternoon.
Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise three times per week may improve your sleep quality as it effectively alleviates the stress that can keep you tossing and turning.
Moreover, studies also show that physical activity may stimulate longer periods of deep, restorative sleep. In particular, aerobic exercises, strength training, and yoga have all been shown to benefit sleep duration and quality.
Aside from the type of exercise, timing is also an important consideration. Exercising in the late afternoon or early evening seems to provide the most benefit in terms of sleep while exercising less than two hours before bedtime may have the opposite effect by over stimulating the brain.
Note that it can take two to four months for exercise to have any effect on your sleep so patience is key!
A late night trip to your favorite fast-food restaurant or a late afternoon cup of coffee can all interfere with your sleep. Here's what to do instead:
Eat a light meal for dinner – Keeping dinner light and non-spicy will help prevent heartburn and indigestion that can have you searching for antacids in the middle of the night. If you need a snack before bedtime, look for foods high in tryptophan, such as turkey, yogurt, milk, cheese, and almonds.
Avoid caffeine after noon – Caffeine can stay in your system for several hours, enough that a late afternoon espresso shot may impact your sleep. Thus, limit your caffeine intake to the morning hours, and don't overlook hidden sources of caffeine like chocolate.
Avoid drinking alcohol at night – While a glass of wine may make you feel drowsy, it won't necessarily help you sleep better. Alcohol can suppress melatonin production several hours after consumption and can alter the synchronization of your biological clock, resulting in restless and fragmented sleep. Consider drinking tart cherry juice instead as it naturally increases melatonin levels.
Avoid all fluids at least two hours before bedtime – Stop drinking fluids within a couple of hours of bedtime if you find yourself getting up during the night to go to the restroom. If you still have frequent nighttime urination, consult a physician to rule out any potential medical issues.
Just as most parents use evening baths and bedtime stories to calm their children in preparation for bed, adults can also benefit from evening rituals to relax the mind and body:
Limit "worrying time" to the day or early evening – Avoid having difficult or touchy conversations before bedtime as you're more likely to stay awake replaying the events in your head. If you tend to dwell on worries and unfinished tasks when trying to fall asleep, try techniques like journaling and to-do lists to get all your concerns out of your system earlier in the day.
Try various relaxation techniques – If you find it hard to sleep because you've had a particularly stressful day, one or more of the following relaxation techniques can help:
Now that you've created a relaxing environment for sleeping and taken steps throughout the day to prepare your mind and body for a good night's rest, it's time to turn your attention to what you can do after you slip under the covers to ensure you fall and stay asleep throughout the night:
Playing mental games such as slowly counting backward from 100 may help keep your mind from racing and focused on worries. If your body feels tense from the stresses of the day, concentrate on relaxing each body part starting with your toes and working your way up to your head.
If you find yourself tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes, don't linger in bed. Staring at the ceiling while awake can lead to stress and anxiety, which only compounds the problem.
Instead, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing or even boring until you start to feel sleepy, such as listening to your favorite mellow playlist or reading an easygoing book. Be sure to keep the lights as dim as possible to avoid becoming even more alert.
If your sleep problem is caused by a temporary issue, such as a stressful event or travel, you may want to consider taking a supplement or prescription medication until the problem resolves.
For example, the hormone produced by the body to help induce sleep, melatonin, comes in natural supplement form. Magnesium, a mineral that helps relieve muscle cramps and promotes relaxation can also be effective for sleep. Then there are prescription medications like Ambien, Lunesta, and Rozerem, which may be appropriate if the natural approach doesn't offer relief.
Regardless of the sleep aid, it's important to consult your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter supplement or prescription medication and to limit the use in order to reduce the risk of dependency.
If neck or back pain wakes you up during the night or leaves you feeling stiff and achy in the morning, your sleeping position may be the problem. As long as you don't suffer from sleep apnea or snoring, sleeping on your back is generally regarded as the best sleeping position. Not only is it easiest on your neck, back, and hips, it's also the least likely to exacerbate acid reflux or other conditions that may interfere with your sleep.
Even if you feel you could use a few more minutes of sleep when the alarm goes off, try to resist the urge to hit the snooze button. Those extra minutes are just long enough to start a whole new sleep cycle, where you find yourself drifting into a deeper stage of sleep than when the alarm first sounded! Waking up during this deep sleep stage will only leave you feeling groggy and fuzzy-headed the rest of the morning.
Now, if you follow through with the point made earlier about knowing your life purpose, you'll probably be less tempted to hit the snooze button and even become less reliant on alarm clocks in general.
If you find you still need a little help getting up in the morning, consider swapping your alarm clock for a wake- up light, which uses gradually increasing light for a more natural wake up experience.
Now that you're armed with the information needed to create a better night's sleep, let's see how to put all these recommendations into action:
First and foremost, we don't recommend trying to implement all these tips at once. It's better to start with one or two you think will be easiest to incorporate into your life, then gradually make more modifications to your sleep habits as you become more comfortable with these changes.
For any of the above tips to be effective, consistency is key. Just like you can't expect to lose weight by exercising three or four times a month, you can't expect to see results just by practicing good sleep hygiene once or twice a week.
Undoing the effects of chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep hygiene doesn't happen overnight. It can take as long as several weeks for you to notice the impact of your new sleep habits. Moreover, you may even notice poorer quality of sleep at first as your mind and body adjust to your new routine.
One way to gauge your progress is by tracking your results using a convenient online sleep diary such as The Better Sleep Project.
If you've taken steps to improve your sleep hygiene but still don't notice improvements after several weeks, it may be time to consult your doctor. Underlying physical and/or mental health problems, such as sleep apnea, acid reflux, depression, and anxiety may be at the root of your sleep issues. Your healthcare provider can determine if a sleep study, blood work, or other diagnostic tests are appropriate.
What techniques have YOU used to get a good night's sleep? Leave your comments below!