Sleep is an essential function to our health. During the time that we sleep, our body does not just recharge. Nerve cells reorganize and reestablish communication. The entire body repairs, even the brain restores information and removes waste. Quality sleep helps manage blood pressure, can improve symptoms of depression, and also helps weight loss. These are just a few benefits of sleep. For many, a good night’s rest is a unicorn that we chase and the best we can hope for is a somewhat-decent period of rest.
The ideal range of time to sleep is between 7-9 hours, with the other important prong of the equation being that it’s the same 7-9 hours. The consistency of timing plays a significant role in our wellness. According to a U.S. study, adults who have a regular bedtime are likely to weigh less, have a lower blood sugar, as well as a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes than those who don’t have a regular bedtime. In fact, in one study, people with irregular sleep had a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years.
And now a large, long-term study published in October 2022 in the journal PLOS Medicine underscores the importance of developing good sleep habits at an early age to better support your wellness later in life. The results of the study showed that people 50 and older who sleep five hours or less at night have a greater risk of developing multiple chronic diseases as they age compared with peers who get a longer night’s rest.
The study evaluated over 8,000 participants in the U.K. who did not have chronic diseases at age 50. Over the next twenty-five years, the participants were evaluated at markers of every 4-5 years and the amount they slept was recorded.
For those whose sleep was tracked at age 50, people who slept five hours or less a night faced a 30% higher risk that they would develop multiple chronic diseases over time than those who slept at least seven hours a night. At 60, it was a 32% increased risk, and at 70, it was a 40% greater risk.
The researchers involved with the study highlighted that this study was done to evaluate the relationship between sleep duration and multimorbidity as “The prevalence of multimorbidity is on the rise as reflected in over half of older adults having at least 2 chronic diseases in high-income countries, making multimorbidity a major challenge for public health.” Add to it that getting not enough sleep and also getting too much sleep has been shown to increase the risk for many health issues (higher risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and more), the pursuit of understanding exactly how sleep impacts our health over our lifetime is essential.
How to improve your sleep quality
A grouping of practices and habits often referred to as “sleep hygiene,” can help people improve their quality of sleep. Below is an overview of some helpful practices. You can read more about sleep hygiene, here.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations to where you can get at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy. Struggling to fall sleep just leads to frustration. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, like reading or listening to music until you are tired enough to sleep. The same applies if you wake in the middle of the night. Get up after 20 minutes and return when feeling tired.
- Ease the transition from wake time to sleep time with a period of relaxing activities an hour or so before bed. Take a bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), use aromatherapy, read a book, or practice relaxation exercises. Avoid stressful, stimulating activities like doing work or discussing emotional issues. Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
- It is well documented that keeping your bedroom quiet and relaxing contributes to better sleep. A quiet, dark, and cool environment can help promote sleep. Why do you think bats congregate in caves for their daytime sleep? “To achieve such an environment, lower the volume of outside noise with earplugs or a “white noise” appliance. Use heavy curtains, blackout shades, or an eye mask to block light, a powerful cue that tells the brain that it’s time to wake up. Keep the temperature comfortably cool, between 60 and 75°F, and the room well ventilated,” says one Harvard study.
- Limit exposure to bright light in the evenings, including electronic equipment. Dim the lights and turn off all your devices about 60 minutes before bedtime. Bright light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains that it’s time to be awake and alert, so start sending the opposite signal. It isn’t just a matter of it helping us feel sleepy- studies have shown that even low levels of light during sleep can have a negative impact on our health.
- Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. Your body isn’t meant to be digesting foods while sleeping. If you need a late night snack, eat light.
- Exercise is important to help your body feel ready for sleep. Even just taking a walk can get your blood moving and improve your sleep. It’s best to complete your workouts at least 2 hours before you go to bed so your body is ready to rest.
- Avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, chocolates, nicotine, or any type of stimulant at least 6 hours before sleep (although alcohol may bring on sleep, after a few hours it acts as a stimulant). Nicotine changes the amount of time spent in each sleep cycle.
- Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime to prevent or lessen the number of bathroom calls.
- Try not to nap or make it earlier in the day- limit to only 30 minutes.
- Don’t stare at the clock. According to one Harvard study, staring at a clock in your bedroom, either when you are trying to fall asleep or when you wake in the middle of the night, can actually increase stress, making it harder to fall asleep. Turn your clock’s face away from you.
- As a loving pet owner, this one hurts- keep furry friends out of the bed. They may feel comforting at first but their presence keeps you attuned to their needs and limits your sleeping space. They can also trigger allergies.
- Slip on socks. Some people have the unlucky lot in life of colder-than-comfortable extremities. According to a 1999 study, having warm hands and feet seemed to predict how quickly you’ll fall asleep.
- Breathing deeply mimics how your body feels when it’s already relaxed because it stimulates the body’s naturally-calming parasympathetic system. Try breathing in to the count of five, hold your breath for the count of five, breath out to the count of five, hold your breath for the count of five. After a few minutes you’ll be more relaxed and calm.
- It is estimated that 37 million Americans snore regularly. It certainly disturbs a bed partner’s sleep, but it can disrupt the snorer’s sleep, too, leading to more daytime sleepiness, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Try sleeping on your side instead of your back, avoiding alcohol before bed, and even losing weight.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation exercises which involves tensing then releasing the muscles throughout the body, directing your attention to each as you go. It can improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue. Imagine yourself somewhere calm, relaxing, and sleep-inducing. This deep relaxation method can slow brain wave activity, coaxing you toward sleep.
- If your bed partner is constantly stealing all the covers, or one of you sweats while the other shivers, it might be a good idea to use separate bed sheets and covers. Use only one fitted sheet to start, then individual top sheets and blankets. Also make sure the mattress is big enough for two people. As much as cuddling works when awake, it hampers sleep when you can’t stretch and maneuver.
- Believe it or not, lots of tossing and turning may be less about you and more about what you’re laying on. An uncomfortable mattress might be the source of your sleepless nights. Whether that’s because it’s lost its cushioning or because it’s simply too small, it’s important to recognize the signs that it’s time to buy a new one. Expect to make a swap every 5-10 years, according to Consumer Reports. Read here for info on picking a mattress, pillow, and sheets that support better sleep.
- Talk to your healthcare provider if insomnia persists. It may be due to obstructive sleep apnea, prostrate issues, restless leg, or medications.
Without a doubt, sleep is a cornerstone of our health. While we may be able to skate by temporarily with less sleep, poor quality sleep, or an irregular schedule, in the long run we feel the effects and our health suffers. Like other crucial practices- like regular physical activity, eating a balanced diet of whole foods– sleep needs to be approached as the essential component of our health that it is.