Getting quality sleep on a regular basis helps boost your immune system, facilitates tissue growth and repair (including blood vessels), restores energy, and releases essential hormones. While you sleep, you enhance your ability to learn and remember what you learned during your waking hours. Sleep also affects your mood and ability to solve problems. When you’ve gotten enough sleep you are less likely to feel depressed, irritable, confused, or slow to react (think driving) during your daytime activities. Your ability to make decisions will be much better after a good night’s sleep.
How Not Enough Sleep Affects You
Cranky? Tired? Do you fantasize about napping every time you see a reasonably soft horizontal surface? Are you stifling yawns during business meetings? Even during social events?
Daytime fatigue and moodiness are just the obvious symptoms of not getting enough sleep. What isn’t as easy to observe are the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your long-term health. Studies conducted by the NIH and others have shown that insufficient sleep and poor sleep habits put you at risk for diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic disorders.
In addition, studies also show a relationship between lack of sleep and your risk for stroke, hypertension, and kidney and heart disease.
Besides your physical health, not enough sleep (and poor sleep) also plays a role in your mental health. Lack of sleep contributes to confusion, slow responses, poor memory, and depression.
So what is the right kind of sleep, how much do you need, and how can you get it?
Two Types of Sleep: REM & non-REM
About 20-25% of your time asleep is spent in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase. This is when you dream. During your REM cycle, your mind processes the events of the day, sorts out your emotions and memories, and helps you manage stress.
Your dreams can be entertaining too — sometimes even enlightening if you’ve been trying to work out a problem or have struggled to formulate an idea. Songwriters often claim the words to a hit song came to them in a dream.
The rest of the time (75-80%), you are in the non-rem (NREM) phase of sleep. This is when most of the health benefits of sleep take place. Tissues are repaired, hormones that regulate your metabolism and other functions are released, and you get the rest your body and mind need.
If your REM and NREM cycles are too short or interrupted several times during the night, the benefits you should be getting from the time you spend sleeping will be minimized or lost.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
The amount of sleep (number of hours) you need varies by age and person. Here’s a general guideline:
- Infants (thankfully) need lots of sleep – between 12 and 16 hours a day.
- Toddlers and young children also need a lot of sleep, up to 14 hours a day.
- Pre-teens still might need as much as 9-12 hours
- Teens need a bit less, 8-10 hours.
- Adults can generally do well with 7-8 hours of sleep each night (though everyone is different and you might find 9 hours is ideal for you while your partner feels great after just 7).
A good way to determine your personal sleep requirement is to pick a few days in a row when you can get away with sleeping until you wake up on your own – so without an alarm to wake you, and obviously not on a day you have early morning commitments. Initially, if you are sleep deprived, you might be surprised at how long you sleep. You might sleep for 12 hours the first day, 10 the next, and so on. Within a few days, however, you will settle into the right amount of time for you. You’ll know what that is because you’ll wake up on your own feeling rested and refreshed. This might be a new feeling for you – but I can guarantee you’ll like it!
Good Sleep Habits (“Sleep Hygiene”)
You’ve probably heard the expression “sleep hygiene.” This doesn’t have to do with cleanliness (although having a neat, clean bedroom often shows up on sleep hygiene lists of dos and don’ts). Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and environment you need to establish to ensure a good night’s sleep.
First on almost every sleep hygiene list is establishing and sticking to a set time to go to bed and to wake up. Once you’ve figured out what your optimum number of sleeping hours is, you can work backward from the time you need to get up and easily determine when you should go to bed. Once you’ve got your ideal bedtime worked out, make a point to start winding down at least ½ an hour beforehand so you can stick to your plan. Other tips for getting consistently good sleep are:
- Don’t vary your weekday sleep schedule too much on the weekends. Varying your routine by more than an hour can disrupt your body’s sleep-wake rhythm.
- Keep your bedroom uncluttered, cool, quiet, and dim or dark.
- No TV in the bedroom.
- Avoid bright artificial or blue light for the hour before you go to bed. Better to read, chat with a human, or meditate before getting ready for bed. So no video games, Words with Friends, or checking the news on your cell phone or tablet. Turn that stuff off an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid stimulants before bed (caffeinated drinks, nicotine, soft drinks). Also, alcohol, which disrupts sleep (even though you think it helps – it doesn’t).
- Don’t have a big meal and then jump into bed. Try to have your eating done two hours before your designated bedtime.
- If you can, spend some time outside during the day. This will help you sleep at night.
Of course, there are some health issues that can dramatically affect your sleep, and the steps listed above won’t help. If you are getting between 7-8 hours of sleep a night and are still feeling sleepy and desperate for a nap during the day, it may be that you are (unknowingly) waking up during the night due to excessive snoring, sleep apnea, or another condition. In that case, it’s really important that you consult your health care professional and see what might be going on. There might very well be a fix that can dramatically improve how you feel.
But for many or most people, the reason we don’t get enough sleep is our busy lives (we think we don’t have time to sleep), our own bad habits, and our inattention to our sleeping environment. Those things we can easily fix with a little effort, and we should because consistently getting a good night’s sleep can be wonderfully life-changing.