When I ask people how they are, they often reply, “Good, but tired.”
When I try to wake my teenagers up for school, they beg me, “Mom, please. I need more sleep.”
When I attempt to watch a 9 p.m. movie, I barely make it past the opening credits.
It seems like everyone is in a constant sleep deficit. Sleep is a commodity that cannot be purchased or traded. It’s essential to our survival and wellbeing, yet it is the most overlooked part of being healthy.
When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed and alert for our daily activities. Sleep affects how we look, feel and perform on a daily basis, and has a major impact on our overall quality of life. Before the 1950s, most people believed sleep was a passive activity during which the body and brain were dormant. According to Johns Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D., that is a myth. It turns out that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life – which are closely linked to quality of life.
So how much sleep do I need? To get the most out of our sleep, both quantity and quality are important. Getting a regular sleep schedule is imperative to feel rested when you wake up. Enough sleep isn’t only about total hours of sleep, it’s also important to get good, sound, uninterrupted sleep. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get 7 to 8 hours of good, quality sleep on a regular schedule each night. Not surprising, children need even more sleep than adults. Teenagers need at least 8 hours (preferably 9¼ hours), school-aged children need 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night, preschoolers need to sleep between 10 and 13 hours a day (including naps), toddlers need to sleep between 11 and 14 hours a day (including naps) and babies need to sleep between 12 and 16 hours a day (including naps).
A night of continuous sleep leaves the body and mind rejuvenated for the next day. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. Without proper sleep, we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions or engage fully in school and social activities.
Getting enough sleep has many benefits. Besides putting you in a good mood, it also helps prevent you from getting sick. The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states that getting an adequate amount of sleep will lower your risk for serious health problems (like diabetes and heart disease), reduce stress, help maintain a healthy weight, think more clearly and generally get along better with people. When you are fully rested you make good decisions and can avoid injuries (sleep-deprived drivers cause numerous car accidents every year).
Having healthy sleep habits is often referred to as having good sleep hygiene. I know this is easier said than done. Sleeping on command is a skill that not everyone possesses (I wish I did). If you are struggling with falling asleep, try the following tips to improve your sleep and your health.
Routine, routine, routine: The same way we give babies tubbies, use lavender lotion, read them a bedtime story and put them to bed at the same time each night, create and stick to a bedtime ritual for yourself. No weekend warriors marathon sleeping until 10 a.m. Use this same schedule seven days a week if possible. This includes putting away electronics (yes, that means your phone, too) at least an hour before bed. Try splurging on amazing sheets (I recommend brooklinen.com – it’s a game-changer) and blackout curtains.
Stop doing what’s not working: Do something different. Try switching up when the most active part of your day is. If you normally work out in the evening, try exercising in the morning and vice versa. If you are taking naps to stay awake during the day, try to wean yourself off cat naps and start going to bed earlier.
Customize your bedroom: Create an environment that is inviting to sleep in. Make sure you have a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow. Experts say the ideal temperature is 60-76 degrees. You can control the temperature with bedding or opening the window a crack for fresh air.
Plan ahead for a good night’s sleep: Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening. Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. If you can, avoid eating large meals for two to three hours before bedtime. Try a light snack 45 minutes before bed if you’re still hungry.
Most importantly, take your sleep seriously. We don’t realize how unkind we can be to our bodies. We push the limits on a daily basis between working too many hours, pushing hard at the gym and not eating as healthful as we could. The only time our body has to rest and repair from the self-inflicted damage is during sleep. The best part is it’s free and you can see an immediate improvement from adequate sleep. Just ask my family and friends how much a good night’s sleep can change someone’s mood.
(Crystal Reynolds is an owner of 43 Degrees North Athletic Club.)