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The Importance of Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that young adults (ages 18-25) and adults (ages 26-64) get between seven to nine hours every night. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 30 percent of American adults get less than six hours of sleep a night. This is concerning because sleep is essential to helping your brain to work properly. When you’re sleeping, your brain consolidates your memories of the day and categorizes them so that you can access that information later. When you don’t sleep, your brain doesn’t have a chance to do that and it’s harder for your brain to recall and retain information.
Also, sleep deprivation impacts your alertness. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that after 17 to 19 hours without sleep, participants were as alert as someone with a 0.05 blood alcohol level. As participants reached longer periods without sleep, their levels of performance were similar to someone with a 0.1 blood alcohol level, which is considered too impaired to drive a vehicle in all 50 states.
Another reason sleep is essential is that it helps us to regulate our emotions. The ability to cope with daily problems and get along with others is impacted when you don’t sleep enough. When you were young, you were likely encouraged to take naps because children who are tired tend to be cranky. The same is true for adults. While you’re hopefully not having a temper tantrum when your roommate doesn’t do their dishes, it’s harder to deal with everyday stresses and respond appropriately when you are sleep deprived. There is also a strong link between sleep deprivation and depression. Researchers have found that those who are sleep deprived are five times more likely to be depressed as those who are getting enough rest.
Over time, sleep deprivation can cause physical problems as well. When you’re not getting enough sleep, researchers have found that the hormones that regulate your appetite decrease. This means sleep-deprived people tend to eat more than they would if they were well-rested, and they’re more likely to crave high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. This can lead to obesity, which can raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Tips for Better Sleep
Make sleep a priority. All around you, people are pulling all-nighters like it’s a college rite of passage, but it’s important to train yourself to get work done at a decent hour so you can rest.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up around the same time each day helps your body develop sleep patterns. Some people think they will use the weekends to “catch up” on sleep, but that doesn’t work.
Invest in ear plugs and a sleep mask. Those around you may not always be considerate when you want to sleep. Keep earplugs and a sleep mask close by for when you need to block noise or light.
Cut the caffeine. Many of us rely on caffeine to wake up and get through the day, but if you’re finding it hard to sleep at night, one culprit may be your daily lattes, coffee, or energy drinks. Try not to drink caffeinated beverages in the afternoons or evenings.
Ban the blue light. Phones and tablets emit blue light that stimulate your brain, which makes it harder to fall asleep. Adjust your device settings to filter the blue light after a certain time, or better yet, put down your phone an hour or two before it’s time to sleep.
Avoid alcohol before bed. While it’s true that alcohol is a depressant and can help you relax, it impairs your ability to reach the restorative stage of sleep.
Exercise earlier in the day. Working out and getting your heart rate up right before bed can make it hard to fall asleep. Exercise in the morning or early afternoon so that your body has enough time to return to pre-exercise levels before it’s time to rest.
Write it down. If your to-do list is racing around your head, take a few minutes to make a list of what needs to be accomplished so that you can let go of your thoughts and focus on sleep. Or, if worries and stress are making it hard to fall asleep, journaling can help you sort through your feelings and determine how you want to handle what’s causing you to feel anxious.
Use meditation and deep breathing techniques to help you sleep. It’s no secret that being anxious and stressed can make it hard to sleep. Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help you release what’s worrying you. There are lots of great relaxation and sleep meditation videos on YouTube. Check some out and find a few that work for you.
Have a relaxing pre-bed routine. Doing the same things each night help signal to your body that it’s time to get ready for sleep. Do relaxing activities such as taking a warm bath, stretching, quietly reading, or having a cup of hot tea. Having a consistent routine before bed also makes it easier to remember to address other tasks that need to be done daily to protect your health such as flossing your teeth or taking needed medications.
Get up and then try again. If you’re finding it hard to go to sleep, get up and do something quiet like reading for about 20 minutes. Try to keep the light low so that you’re not overly stimulated, and then try falling asleep again.
Understand that sleeping pills aren’t a long-term solution. While there are both over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids available, they often just mask the symptoms of insomnia and don’t promote your body reaching levels of restorative sleep. Often when you wake up, you still feel tired. Rather than trying a quick fix, it’s best to get to the root of what is causing your sleep difficulties.
When to Seek Help
There are a few medical conditions that can impact the quality of your sleep, but they are all treatable. Some common sleep disorders include insomnia (trouble falling and staying asleep), sleep apnea (pauses in breathing during sleep), and narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness). If you notice any of the following, you should speak with a medical provider.
- Consistently taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night.
- Waking up several times during the night.
- Feeling sleepy during the day and falling asleep at inappropriate times—such as in class or while parked at a traffic light.
- Loud snoring or snorting, gasping or making choking sounds in sleep.
- Having creeping, tingling, or crawling feelings in your legs or arms as you’re trying to fall asleep.
- Feeling like you cannot move or are paralyzed when you first wake up.
It’s also important to note that you can sleep too much. Consistently sleeping ten or more hours a night might signal several health issues. From a mental health perspective, people with mood concerns such as depression may be frequently tired and want to sleep a lot. If you think you may be sleeping too much, it’s good to check with your physician to make sure everything is okay. If you feel excessive sleeping may be the result of your mood, you should speak with a counselor to determine the how to address your concerns.
Want to Know More?
Carney, C. and Colleen and Manber, R. (2007). Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep: Solutions to Insomnia for Those with Depression, Anxiety or Chronic Pain. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Huffington, A. (2010). How to Succeed? Get More Sleep. Retrieved from ted.com/talks/arianna_huffington_how_to_succeed_get_more_sleep.
National Sleep Foundation. sleepfoundation.org.
Peters, B. (2018). Insomnia Solved: A Self-Directed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) Program. Seattle: Independent.
Winter, W.C. (2017). The Sleep Solution: Why Yours is Broken and How to Fix It. New York: New American Library.