Getting enough sleep has become a luxury for many and it is often the first part of our wellbeing to suffer when we are busy or stressed. However, lack of sleep and its resulting negative effects has become a health crisis in the United States. An increasing number of adults sleep less than the 7 or 8 hours recommended and while this works for a very small percentage of the population, it is unhealthy for the majority. Part of this is because of the prevalence of technology and the ability to be connected 24/7 but there are many other contributing factors as well. A good night’s sleep makes us feel better both physically and mentally and research has shown that the benefits go well beyond just feeling perkier and looking younger. Although it seems like simple advice to make sleep a priority, it is not always easy.
So what are the benefits of sleep? When we get good sleep we look and feel and think better. Other benefits are:
- Improved memory and focus
- Less stress
- Better sports, work or school performance
- Increase in immune function
- Better creativity
- Better relationships
These are all very important but what is troubling is what research has shown that the effects of not enough sleep over the long-term are:
- Increased weight gain or trouble losing weight
- Less tolerance to chronic pain
- Increased risk of injury and accidents
- Increased risk of Alzheimer’s
- Increased chance of diabetes and cardiovascular disease
So given the evidence of the importance of sleep to our health how can we make it happen?
There are many ways to get better sleep but it is important to first identify what your “sleep robbers” are so you can find a solution that works for you. Some common “robbers” are room temperature, brightness, exercising or eating too close to bedtime, staying “plugged in” to your cell phone or computer, caffeine and alcohol, menopause and even a messy or uncomfortable sleep environment or bed. For some the problem is not falling asleep but waking up and worrying or maybe because of chronic pain. There are also medical problems that lead to sleep loss and need to be evaluated by your doctor such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. It might also be staying up late to work or study which might be necessary as a short term fix but can become an unhealthy habit.
Some of these “sleep robbers” can solved by adjusting the temperature of the room or using a cooling or warming mattress pad or pillow, eating earlier, monitoring the amount and time of caffeine and alcohol consumption, turning off your phone and making your room quiet and your bed is comfortable for sleep. Medical issues can be discussed with your doctor who will be able to diagnose and treat underlying conditions. Staying up late to work or study or even to browse Facebook is also a personal choice you might want evaluate and determine whether the payoff is worth the health detriments. Committing to a bed time ( and setting a reminder) is one way to break the habit of burning the midnight oil.
If worrying is waking or keeping you up night after night, there are many strategies that may help. Here are few tips:
- Before going to bed write down anything bothering you and put it in a box away from your bed. If you wake up, remind yourself your concern is in the box and you can pick it up in the morning. If you need to add more worries to the box, do so and go back to sleep.
- To yourself say “I am inhaling calm, I am exhaling fear or worry” or breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four counts, hold for four. Learning and using mindfulness mediation helps as well.
- Find a guided visualization to listen to that will help you let go. The apps Calm and Insight Meditation are two options or you can get a white noise machine that has many calming sounds.
- If worrying becomes a nightly problem talk to a medical doctor, therapist, clergy member or coach to work on a solution or gain perspective. Joining a support group might help in some cases.
- There is good evidence that writing down three things we are grateful for before sleeping can also prime our brain to worry less and wake up happier.