Good Quality Sleep is Essential to Your Health
“Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset the health of your brain and body.”
Matthew Walker, Ph.D. SleepFoundation.org, Scientific Advisor (NY Times)
Sleep is a basic requirement for life, and the quality of sleep matters. Poor sleep is linked to poor health since it affects nearly every physiological function. According to the American Heart Association and the National Institute on Health, decreased sleep health can affect our cardiovascular health, psychological health, cognitive function, glucose levels, blood pressure, and immune system function. Are you getting the kind of sleep you need to function optimally and maintain good health?
Sleep Health and Sleep Hygiene
Sleep health refers to the pattern of your sleep-wake cycle, which is adapted to your individual, social, and environmental needs. It means getting adequate, uninterrupted sleep that keeps you alert and rested regularly. Sleep health considers variables of sleep:
- quality, and
- daytime alertness.
Good sleep health promotes physical and mental well-being.
Sleep hygiene refers to your sleep habits. The routines and rituals you have around sleep impact the quality of your sleep. Many proven strategies can help you get a good night’s rest. And there are some unhealthy lifestyle habits to avoid in the quest for better sleep.
Symptoms Of Poor Sleep
To feel your best, your internal clock, called your circadian rhythm, needs to be in sync with your external clock or what is happening during your day. To maintain this 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, your body relies on internal cues like alertness, hunger, and hormones and environmental cues like light, darkness, and routines to signal when it is time to fall asleep or wake up. Light cues our brain and body awake, while darkness cues sleepiness.
There are a variety of factors that impact our ability to get good sleep. A busy schedule, traveling across time zones, shift work, stress, pain, unhealthy lifestyle habits, or other health conditions may affect your sleep. When you are not sleeping well, you may experience:
- Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Lethargy, extreme tiredness
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
- Sleep loss – fewer than 7 hours per day
- Depression or irritability
- Poor performance at school or work activities
- Decreased alertness and difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue that makes socializing difficult
- Impaired judgment
- Aches and pains, including headaches
- Stomach problems
If your sleep issues are chronic or interfere with your daily functioning, discussing your symptoms and treatment options with your healthcare provider is best. Over-the-counter sleep aids and sleep medications can help with short-term problems but can also delay getting an accurate diagnosis and correct treatment. Many of these medicines have side effects and can be habit-forming. Some sleep disorders are more complex and may require in-depth evaluation by a sleep specialist.
Strategies for Improving Sleep Health
The first step to improving the quality of your sleep is to assess your sleep habits and develop good sleep hygiene before reaching for sleep aids. Making meaningful changes will help train your brain and body to sync to a healthier 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. You may want to keep a sleep journal to identify problematic patterns. Many sleep issues may respond to simple self-care interventions. Here are guidelines to help you develop healthy sleep habits and avoid more serious sleep disorders:
- Create the ideal sleep environment. Make your bedroom feel like a sanctuary for restful sleep. Keep it quiet, dark, and cozy. Set the thermostat to 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit which promotes sleep. Use a sleep machine to drown out noise and blackout curtains or an eye mask to reduce light.
- Remove screens from the bedroom. Don’t watch TV, work on the computer, or use your phone in bed. These activities tend to ramp up our minds when it is time to unwind. Also, the light from screens cues your brain to be alert instead of sleepy.
- Set a regular bedtime and wake time. Stick to it every day, including weekends and days off work. This helps synchronize your internal clock and gets your body into a routine. Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and eating a heavy meal within 2-3 hours before bed. They can cause disturbed sleep.
- Establish a pre-bed routine that includes activities to relax your body. Take a bath, do yoga or gentle stretches, listen to soft music, or journal for a few minutes. Follow the same steps each night. Rituals and routines act as cues to prepare you for sleep.
- Get plenty of exercise and eat a nutritious diet. They play an important role in chemical changes in the brain which align our sleep-wake cycle. Avoid vigorous exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime.
- Reduce your stress level. The Sleep Foundation recommends practicing relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness to reduce stress’s impact on sleep. Decreasing stress helps to calm your mind and body.
- Leave the bed if you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes. Don’t watch the clock because this will increase frustration and anxiety. Get up, keep the lights off, and don’t use your devices. Do something mindless and relaxing until you feel sleepy again.
- Change lifestyle habits that interfere with sleep. Habits like alcohol use, heavy caffeine consumption, substance abuse, frequent air travel, and lack of exposure to natural light during the day are key examples. What you do during your waking hours impacts your sleep.
Begin making a few small changes at a time. Be patient with yourself and give it time. If adopting these guidelines does not improve your sleep pattern, you may consider asking your doctor about the following:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Research suggests CBT can help improve insomnia and other sleep problems better than prescription sleep medicines.
- Light therapy. This involves exposure to artificial light that resembles sunlight which can help manipulate sleep and wake times.
Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder
Non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder (N24SWD) is a circadian rhythm disorder whereby a person’s circadian rhythm is shorter or slightly longer than 24 hours. According to the Sleep Foundation, “This causes sleep and wake times to get pushed progressively earlier or later, usually by one or two hours at a time. Over days or weeks, the circadian rhythm becomes desynchronized from regular daylight hours.” It is estimated that about 50% of totally blind people have N24SWD, but it can occur in fully sighted individuals too.
This constant shifting of the sleep-wake cycle causes abnormal fluctuations in mood, appetite, and alertness, and over time, can have negative health impacts. People with N24SWD may experience depression and stress resulting from the inability to keep up with school, work, and personal demands.
Treatments include hormones, medicine, and light therapy which can help establish a more normal sleeping pattern. Tasimelteon is an approved prescription drug for N24SWD. Ramelteon and melatonin are additional treatment options. Consult your healthcare provider for more information about treatment.
This debilitating condition requires the care and support of doctors, family, friends, employers, schools, and others who understand the medical disorder.
Circadian Rhythm Disorders – What Are Circadian Rhythm Disorders? | NHLBI, NIH
What Are Circadian Rhythm Disorders? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention | Everyday Health
Healthy Sleep Habits: The Ultimate Sleep Improvement Plan | Sleep Foundation
Sleep Is the New Status Symbol – The New York Times (nytimes.com), retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/04/08/fashion/sleep-tips-and-tools.html 5/9/2023.