In addition to exercise and healthy eating as the key pieces to a healthy lifestyle, modern science supports quality sleep as a third piece of equal importance. According to the CDC, more than one third of Americans are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
Getting enough good quality sleep is important for our well-being and daily functioning. We’ve all enjoyed the joyous experience of a great night’s sleep, waking up well-rested, energetic and optimistic. On the other hand, we’ve all also experienced a poor night’s sleep, awakening feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent, and often in a disassociated “zombie” state.
The amount of sleep each person needs is biologically determined and different for everyone. Some can make do with five hours of sleep while others require ten hours. As a general rule, seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended. Regardless, sleeping has a restorative function as our brains and bodies require this important down time for peak performance.
What’s not so obvious
Good quality sleep is an important component of overall health, wellness, and fitness. Sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on numerous bodily functions, including:
While sleeping, there is an increased rate of anabolism (cellular growth and synthesis) and a decreased rate of catabolism (cellular breakdown). These processes are disrupted by sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep issues can result in making one feel ill and appearing much older than they are.
Sleep disruption results in decreased levels of leptin (a chemical appetite suppressant), increased ghrelin levels (a chemical appetite stimulant), increased corticosteroids (stress hormones) and increased glucose levels (higher amounts of sugar in the bloodstream). As a result, chronic sleep deprivation commonly gives rise to increased appetite, increased caloric intake and the disassociated “zombie” state – resulting in dysfunctional eating patterns, consumption of unhealthy foods, and weight gain. In addition, chronic fatigue impairs one’s ability to exercise properly, if at all.
Chronic sleep deprivation also results in irritability, impaired cognitive function and poor judgment. The inability to be attentive and focused interferes with work and school performance, causes increased injuries (such as falls), and motor vehicle accidents.
What to do
The good news is that sleep deprivation can be alleviated. Here are a variety of ways to get a good night’s sleep:
- Lead an active lifestyle with lots of exercise and stimulation.
- Whether you are an early riser or a night owl, try to be consistent with wake-up and bedtimes on both weekdays and weekends. If these times vary greatly, you’re setting yourself up for sleep problems by disturbing your body’s internal clock.
- Maintain a comfortable sleeping environment with a good quality supportive bed, comfortable pillows, a dark room, cool temperature and, if you like, “white noise” (I find that the monotonous sound of the sea produced by a sound machine, coupled with the gentle whirring of an overhead fan, is an instant relaxer).
- Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, etc.) particularly after 6 p.m. Herbal teas (like chamomile) can be soothing and relaxing.
- Avoid eating a large dinner or eating very late at night.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol.
- Avoid exercising late in the evening.
- Reduce the stress in your life as much as you can. Engage in a de-stressing activity immediately before sleep, such as reading, watching a movie or television show, or doing crossword puzzle.
- Try to minimize evening exposure to the bright light (“blue light”) of cell phones, tablets and computers that inhibits production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Under normal circumstances, melatonin levels rise with darkness. If possible, dim the light settings on electronic devices that are used at night.
- Supplemental melatonin seems to help some people, but is ineffective for many others (including myself), but may be worth a try.