A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your health. In fact, sleep is the cornerstone of wellness, and ranks in importance up there with eating well and exercising. According to the National Institutes of Health, getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.
Did you know?
According to the American Sleep Association, 50 to 70 million people in the U.S.
suffer from insomnia (can’t fall asleep well or stay asleep for long).
Why Sleep Matters
The way you feel while you’re awake depends on what happens while you are sleeping. While we doze, our brains and bodies are hard at work, repairing us after the day, and refueling us for the day ahead. When you’re sleep-deficient, it affects everything from problem solving to your memory and mood and even your health. In his book Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (Harper Wave, 2018), Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar says, “If you don’t balance your activity with rest, you will deplete your strength, weaken your digestive fire, and ultimately shorten your life span.”
- Heart Health: Sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Shortchanging yourself on sleep can lead to an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol, which compels your heart to work harder. Sleep disorders have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- Metabolism and Weight: Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity. Sleep helps you maintain a healthy balance of hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin); when you don’t get enough shut-eye, your ghrelin levels go up and leptin levels go down, making your feel hungrier than when you’re rested. Not sleeping also impacts how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar. When you don’t get enough sleep, your blood sugar increases, which may increase your risk of diabetes.
- Mood: When you’re tired you’re more prone to irritability, impatience, and moodiness. You’re also more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, which makes it harder to control your emotions. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep-deprived people were less likely to exercise, eat healthfully, and engage in activities because of sleepiness.
- Learning and Memory: Studies show that sleep improves learning and problem-solving skills. Researchers found that sleep deprivation leads to lower alertness and concentration, which can affect your ability to perform basic tasks. Research also suggests that different phases of sleep play different roles in consolidating information in memories. If your sleep is interrupted, it interferes with these cycles. Not getting your Zzzs impacts your ability to focus, which makes it more difficult to pick up information.
- Disease: Quality sleep keeps your immune system strong, which keeps colds and flu at bay, and defends your body against other infections. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Not getting enough sleep may decrease production of these protective proteins. New research from the National Institutes of Health warns that losing just one night of sleep can lead to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In Alzheimer’s, beta-amyloid proteins clump together to form amyloid plaques, a hallmark of the disease.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
We all know people who swear they can get by on four or five hours of sleep a night, but most of us need more than that. How much? According to the National Sleep Foundation, “sleep needs vary across ages and are especially impacted by lifestyle and health. To determine how much sleep you need, it’s important to assess not only where you fall on the ‘sleep needs spectrum,’ but also to examine what lifestyle factors are affecting the quality and quantity of your sleep.”
The national Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours a night for adults aged 26 to 64, and 7 to 8 hours for adults 65 and older. But they suggest paying attention to your individual needs by assessing how your feel on different amounts of sleep.
- Are you productive, healthy, and happy on 7 hours of sleep? Or do you need 9 hours to get you moving?
- Are you having health issue such as being overweight? Are you at risk for any disease?
Are you experiencing sleep problems?
- Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day?
Most of us have forgotten what being truly rested feels like. And we’re increasingly relying on stimulants like coffee and energy drinks, alarm clocks, and external lights— including those from electronic devices—all of which are interfering with our circadian rhythm—our natural sleep/wake cycle.
See also Insomnia Solutions
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
The good news is that you can reverse the effects of sleeplessness by getting more snooze time. Implement these tips into your routine and you’ll be on your way to a happier and healthier life.
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day — even on weekends — helps to regulate your circadian rhythms and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
Practice a bedtime ritual. Take a bath, power down your electronics an hour before bed, journal, or listen to soothing music. Separate yourself from activities that cause stress or anxiety, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Also, rituals help signal the body that it’s time to sleep.
- Exercise daily. Exercise boost the effects of natural sleep hormones such as melatonin. However, working out too close to bedtime can stimulate you, so give yourself a few hours before bed.
- Keep cool. You may want to crank up the heat and be cozy at bedtime, but you’ll sleep better if your bedroom is between 60 and 67 degrees. Temps in this range cause a drop in your core body temperature that initiates sleepiness, say sleep experts.
- Dim the lights. Too much light before bedtime can suppress melatonin levels, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology. Dim the lights or turn off all unnecessary lights near bedtime to help you ease into sleep.
- De-stress. Stress is a stimulus, and it activates the fight-or-flight hormones that will keep you up at night. Give yourself time to wind down before bed. Learn a relaxation technique like meditation, or try deep breathing exercises.
Natural Sleep Aids
If you find that the tips above aren’t fully doing the trick, you may want to turn to natural sleep aids.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It’s job is to maintain your body’s circadian rhythm, aka, your internal clock, which also runs on a 24-hour schedule, just like the day. This internal clock plays a critical role in when we fall asleep and when we wake up. Supplementing with melatonin can boost our natural levels and help get our body clock on track. Melatonin is best taken as a liquid or in sublingual tablets, so the hormone is absorbed directly into the body.
- Valerian Root: Valerian root is used to calm the nervous system and promote slumber. Studies suggest it shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, and improves sleep quality. Because it becomes more effective over time, it’s best to take it every night for a few weeks.
- L-Theanine: A compound found in tea, L-theanine has a calming effect on the brain; studies suggest that it’s absorbed in large quantities, crosses the blood-brain barrier, gets into the brain quickly, and impacts levels of the amino acids affecting serotonin and other neurotransmitters. You’ll find it in single-formula tablets and capsules, and in combination with other sleep-inducing nutrients.
- Magnesium: Studies have shown that higher magnesium levels can help induce a deeper sleep. Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and is thought to help improve sleep by decreasing the release of cortisol. It also works with calcium to help muscles contract and then relax. Best for sleep: magnesium tablets or capsules alone, or in combination with herbs.
- L-Tryptophan: This amino acid occurs naturally in turkey, milk, and eggs. It’s essential in making serotonin, and can help shorten the length of time it takes to fall asleep. Because it’s essential in serotonin production, it may be most effective in easing insomnia that’s related to low brain serotonin levels. Look for it in combination formulas, or use it as a single supplement.
- 5-HTP: 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is made by the body as an intermediate step in making serotonin. It’s most commonly used to treat depression, and may be effective in treating insomnia that’s secondary to mood disorders.
5-HTP is a metabolite of the essential amino acid L-tryptophan, a component of protein. Our bodies convert some dietary tryptophan into 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), for use in serotonin synthesis. The Mayo Clinic calls serotonin “a chemical your body produces that’s needed for your nerve cells and brain to function,” and serotonin also generates another well-known substance called melatonin, which the body produces at night to enable proper sleep cycles. 5-HTP not only helps us relax all day and sleep overnight, but also helps the body turn off unnecessary processes while sleeping to allow routine maintenance and repairs. The healthy serotonin and melatonin levels that 5-HTP supports can appropriately cycle down normal daytime bodily functions overnight, including adrenal stress hormones and stomach acid production. NOW performs extensive analytical testing to assure our food-derived 5-HTP’s purity, quality, and safety.
Meet the Expert: Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, is a clinical nutritionist and past president of the American Nutrition Association. He is the senior nutrition education manager for NOW.