Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. We stay up too late decompressing or having fun, and we get up too early for work or taking care or the kids. Sleep is like a piggy bank that we keep raiding.
But losing sleep takes a heavy toll on us. Here are seven things you should know about sleep in order to build better sleeping habits and live a healthier life.
1. Why Is Sleep Important?
The short answer is “health.” Sleep is a time for our bodies and minds to repair themselves. It’s also a critical part of our circadian rhythm, which helps center us on the day-night cycle to which our bodies are closely attuned.
We all know that missing out on precious sleep can cause lethargy and irritability. But it can also cause breakdowns in our mental and physical health, from depression to heart problems. It’s all part of the well-documented sleep-health connection.
2. Sleep Is Vital for Hormonal Health
One of the lesser known facts about sleep is also one of the most important: Sleep is crucial for our hormonal health. Getting enough good-quality sleep can help you balance hormones naturally.
Hormones are the body’s internal messaging system. They control everything from mood to reproduction, and without them life would have very little physical depth to it. If our stomachs are empty, they generate a hormone that creates the feeling of hunger. If we perceive an urgent danger, the adrenal glands on our kidneys create a powerful hormone that supplies instant alertness, strength, and speed.
If you’re having sleep troubles, odds are good that your hormones are out of balance too.
3. Your “Nest” Makes a Huge Difference
Bedroom, mattress, bedsheets. These are the elements that make up the modern human “nest,” and building a good nest is one of the keys to getting good sleep. It’s hard to understate how important this is! There are three main goals to aim for:
- Create a stimulant-free bedroom environment: Choose an interesting but relaxing decor that helps you nod off, and avoid using your bedroom for stimulating daytime activities like work, conversation, and eating.
- Choose a mattress that brings you a more restful sleep. You might be surprised how much the quality of your sleep can vary just because of the mattress.
- Choose the best bedding for your needs. Experiment with different numbers of pillows, pillow materials, and pillow firmness. If you sweat a lot at night, avoid cotton sheets in favor of ones that breathe easier, like bamboo cotton or microfiber. Always keep your bedding clean.
The benefit of sleep is that each morning it’s a lot easier to get up and leave your nest, and get out there and live a fulfilling life.
4. Facts About Your Body When You Sleep
Did you know that we get taller when we sleep? When we’re upright during the day, gravity causes compression in our spines that makes us slightly shorter. Getting enough sleep gives our spines time to decompress, restoring our full height.
But there are more serious facts about sleep, too. For instance, research shows that disruption to your circadian rhythm can cause skin problems. Sleep is a time for our metabolism and cardiovascular system to slow down and rest. That’s why it’s so important that you stay warm at night. If you don’t, your metabolism has to work harder.
Another important fact is that our brains have sleep cycles that last about 90 minutes per cycle, during which time our brains alternate through different phases of sleep. Waking up on an interval of REM sleep is much easier, and will leave you feeling much less groggy, than waking up in the middle of deep sleep.
The exact length of the cycle varies from person to person, but, generally speaking, try setting your alarm clock a multiple of 90 minutes from when you actually fall asleep — not when you first get into bed — such as six hours, seven-and-a-half hours, or nine hours (for sleep-in days). You may be surprised at your improved alertness in the mornings!
5. Creating Restfulness Is Better Than Trying to Force Yourself to Sleep
If you struggle with insomnia, there are several lifestyle changes you can try out. Many lists of sleep facts are filled with elaborate suggestions, like avoiding blue light or building a garden. But here’s one life hack that most people don’t think about, and it’s incredibly easy:
Once you’re actually in bed, don’t focus on trying to fall asleep. Definitely don’t force yourself to try to fall asleep. Let yourself be okay with the prospect of not getting a full night’s sleep. Instead, focus on creating restfulness.
What does this mean? First, lying in bed is a good time to do some mental housekeeping. Ask yourself what’s on your mind. If you encounter any sources of stress, think about ways to alleviate that stress, and pick one or two small things you can do tomorrow to get started.
Second, let your mind wander if it wants to. When we’re idle, our imaginations often like to stretch out. Think about a movie or story you enjoyed. Relive some of your favorite memories. Imagine having a conversation with a good friend. Try to visualize a place you’d like to vacation, or use your imagination to listen to a beloved piece of music in real-time.
Lastly, there are more active things you can do. You could practice meditation, or try therapeutic breathing techniques, which can help relax your body into sleep and oxygenate your blood.
In every case, the key is: Once you’re actually in bed, don’t worry anymore about falling asleep or getting enough sleep. Just focus on creating restfulness. Even if you barely sleep at all that night, at least you will have gotten some amount of rest.
6. Diet Matters
The facts on sleep and nutrition are clear: Your diet makes a huge difference in the quality of your sleep. There are three main factors to consider:
- What you eat
- When you eat
- How much you eat
When it comes to diet and sleep, everybody is different. Foods like tomato sauce can cause heartburn or acid reflux in some people, but others can eat them just fine. Eating too much fat at dinner can cause nausea. Some people sleep better if they eat a bedtime snack; others break out into night sweats.
One of the most common dietary sources of sleep trouble is drinking too much coffee, or drinking coffee too late in the day. The caffeine found in most coffee and tea is a stimulant that can make it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get back to sleep.
In general, it pays to listen to your body closely and make incremental changes to your diet over time. This way you can identify specific foods that are affecting your sleep.
7. How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Here are some of the most important benefits of sleeping for the proper length of time each night:
- Reduce your odds of getting sick
- Increase your mental focus
- Relieve stress
- Strengthen your mental health.
Some people need more sleep; others thrive on less. For most people, six hours of sleep is usually okay for one or two nights but causes a sleep deficit in the long term. Five hours is almost always unhealthy, especially for kids and young adults.
You can hone in on the optimal amount of sleep for your body by gradually adjusting the length of your sleeping schedule every two weeks or so and observing your overall alertness and mood. Once you find the number that works best for you, try to get that amount of sleep as often as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
✅Is 6 hours of sleep better than seven?
Whether six or seven hours of sleep is better for you very much depends on you, your body, and your lifestyle. Finding the right amount of sleep for you can be a bit of an experimental process. It’s recommended that you try sleeping for different amounts of time, and recording how refreshed and alert you feel in the morning. You should also note other contributing factors, such as being woken up by the neighbor’s barking dog at 2am, or feeling groggy because you didn’t drink enough water the day before so you’re dehydrated.
✅Is 5 hours of sleep OK?
Some folks thrive on five hours of sleep each night. Others barely function with less than nine. If you are alert, refreshed, and energized for your day after five hours of sleep, then it is perfectly reasonable to only get five hours. It’s not, however, if you need seven hours of sleep and are forcing yourself to rest for five because of a crammed schedule or because you can’t sleep. You may be able to sustain this for a short while, but you will experience a decrease in physical and mental wellness if you do not get enough sleep for extended periods of time.
✅Is 10 pm A good bedtime?
As with so many decisions, the answer here is “it depends”. When do you need to get up? For example, I need to be at my desk at 7:00 am. I don’t commute, but I do need that first cup of coffee and to walk my dog. I prefer seven hours of sleep. So I need to be asleep by 11:00 pm. Aiming for a 10:00 pm bedtime means I’ll probably be in bed by 10:30 pm, and asleep by 11:00. Working backward this way will help you know whether 10 pm is a good bedtime for you.