Getting sufficient sleep is just as important for your health as eating a balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise.
Research has shown that sleep has distinct stages that cycle throughout the night in predictable patterns. How well rested you are and how well you function depend not just on your total sleep duration but on how much of the various stages of sleep you cycle through each night.
Several things happen while you sleep. Your heart rate slows down, and your blood pressure and body temperature fall. Your immune system shifts into high gear, your brain unwinds, and your muscles completely relax. In a nutshell, sleep is a time of regeneration and rejuvenation that benefits your entire body.
Problems Linked With Poor Sleep
Poor sleep interferes with multiple physiological functions that are vital to your health and quality of life:
- Heart Function: Interrupted or inadequate sleep disrupts the nighttime dip in blood pressure, which is important for cardiovascular health. In a recent study involving men and women free of diagnosed heart disease, those who slept fewer than six hours a night were 20% more likely to have a heart attack compared to those who slept six to nine hours.
- Mental Function: The effects of an occasional late night or early awakening probably won’t be noticeable because your brain is quite resilient. But night after night of poor sleep takes a toll. Sleep deprivation can actually affect reaction time and judgment to a degree similar to drinking alcohol! Memory—especially short-term memory—is also impaired.
- Mood: Most people feel irritable and lethargic when they don’t get enough sleep. Research has also shown that chronically poor sleep is linked with a greater risk of developing mood disorders.
- Immune Function: During sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, antibodies, and other proteins that help fight infections. In addition to depressing immune function, sleep deprivation also boosts the body’s production of inflammatory compounds, increasing the risk of developing chronic inflammation, which is tied to multiple adverse health conditions.
Six Tips to Help You Sleep Better
Few things are as frustrating as tossing and turning, looking at the clock as another hour goes by, and wishing for a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, there are several easy ways to help you sleep better and start reaping the benefits of sound slumber.
- Turn out the lights. Light exposure at night disrupts the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. A low-watt night light in the bathroom is acceptable, but when you are ready to go to sleep, all other lights (and the television) should be off, and the shades should be drawn. Blackout drapes are also a good investment.
- Keep cool. Keeping your bedroom on the cool side is key to better sleep. Drops in core temperature signal the brain that it’s time to turn in for the night. Most experts recommend setting your thermostat to 65 or 66 degrees—but don’t let it get too cold, as this too can lead to restless sleep.
- Turn down the volume. Everyone sleeps better when it’s quiet. If you are sleep deprived because of noise disturbances you can’t control—such as street noise or a snoring bedmate (get them checked for sleep apnea!)—then you may want to consider using ear plugs. Another good solution is to use a white noise machine that blocks out sound and lulls you into deeper, better sleep.
- Don’t read, use your laptop or smartphone, or watch TV in bed. The truth is you shouldn’t use your bed for anything except sleep and sex. If you spend significant time watching TV, reading, texting, or just loitering in bed, your body won’t take the cue that “bed” equals “sleep.”
- Cut back on alcohol and caffeine late in the day. Both alcohol and caffeine can contribute to sleep deprivation. If you’re especially sensitive to caffeine, avoid caffeinated beverages any time after noon. As for alcohol, one glass might relax you—but any more can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. The closer to bedtime, the greater the effect.
- Don’t eat right before turning in. If you eat right before bed, your stomach is still working hard to digest that meal when you are trying to nod off, and it can make sleep elusive. For better sleep, try to avoid eating two to three hours prior to bedtime.
Natural Vs. Pharmaceutical Sleep Aids
If these tips for better sleep don’t work for you, try natural sleep aids, but do your best to avoid prescription medications. The dangers of sleeping pills far outweigh their benefits—and make no sense when safe, natural alternatives exist.
All sleep medications—both benzodiazepines (such as Xanax, Restoril, and Halcion) and non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics (Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta)—have serious side effects. They include daytime drowsiness, cognitive impairment, balance problems, a strong potential for addiction, and according to some research, increased risk of death.
If you are currently taking prescription sleeping pills, talk to your doctor about discontinuing them and giving these safe, natural sleep aids a try:
- Melatonin. The best-studied natural sleep aid is melatonin, the “hormone of sleep.” Melatonin’s production in the pineal gland is cued by light—levels rise in the evening as darkness falls and ebb toward the morning. Today’s plugged-in, lit-up world blurs the signals for melatonin release, resulting in disturbances in our sleep-wake cycles. By restoring natural levels, supplemental melatonin promotes sound, restful sleep. The suggested dose is 1–3 mg, 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. By blocking excessive neural activity, it simply calms things down—and when taken in at bedtime, GABA facilitates sleep. The recommended dose is 100 mg.
- L-theanine is another calming and relaxing amino acid. Abundant in green tea and available in supplement form, it is often used to reduce anxiety. As a natural sleep aid, 200 mg taken 30 minutes before retiring, L-theanine works synergistically with GABA to help ease you into sleep.
Valerian, lemon balm, chamomile, and hops also induce relaxation and facilitate better sleep. Look for them as standalones or in combination natural sleep supplements and use as directed.