When it comes to your health, there are few things as important as getting enough quality sleep. It doesn’t matter how well you focus on your diet and fitness; it is in your sleep when your body naturally works to restore many functions that can affect your energy level. In fact, nearly every one of your body systems relies on biological processes to work at its best.
As you sleep, your body cycles go back and forth between rapid eye movement (REM) and NREM (non-REM) stages. It’s during these stages that, for the benefit of brain health, your brain goes through a cleansing process to flush waste, store new information, and consolidate memories. It’s also at this time when your nerve cells communicate and reorganize, and your body goes through a restoration process to repair cells and release hormones and proteins.
Our sleep and wake cycles—or circadian rhythms—follow a 24-hour cycle. These rhythms influence nearly everything in your body, such as hormone release, digestion, maintaining normal blood pressure, hunger, and body temperature. When these rhythms are disrupted from lack of quality sleep, your body may have difficulty functioning properly, and sleep issues have been tied to a number of physical, mental, and emotional problems.
First Things First: Debunking the Myths
Yet, for as integral as it is to your overall health digest, we tend to live by many commonly accepted myths that ruin our sleep.
- “I really only need a few hours of sleep to function.”
In truth, there’s a reason it’s recommended adults get between 7–9 hours of quality sleep every night. Your body needs to go through several sleep cycles every night in order to gain the most benefit.
- “When I can’t sleep, lying in bed with my eyes closed is just as good.”
Lying in bed does not give you the same benefits as sleep, and, if not being able to fall asleep is a common issue, it may be a sign of insomnia. Other signs of insomnia—as defined by the Sleep Foundation—include “waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep, frequent awakenings, and waking up feeling unrefreshed.” If you can’t sleep after about 20 minutes of lying in bed, it is recommended you get up and do a relaxing activity until you are more tired. And if you’re losing sleep due to sleep apnea, see a healthcare provider to discuss treatment options. This condition has been linked to heart arrhythmias and heart disease.
- “I sleep better when I fall asleep watching TV.”
The light emitted from TV and other electronics (blue light) tricks your brain into thinking it is daytime, effectively throwing off your circadian rhythms. This will cause your body to reduce the amount of melatonin—the chemical your body produces at night to help you relax and get to sleep deeply—naturally released.
- “I’ll just take a nap or sleep in this weekend to catch up on lost sleep.”
Adding a nap or two of no more than 30 minutes throughout the day can supplement some lost sleep at night, but this is not a long-term fix. It is harder to make up as you accumulate more “sleep debt” through lost sleep, and you generally can’t make it all up in one lump sum. You can, however, start to pay your body back by adding a little extra sleep on a nightly basis until your body gets back to normal.
Here are a few tips that can help you catch some higher-quality sleep.
Create a Sleep-Focused Bedroom
Your bedroom should scream relaxation and comfort. Choose dimmer lightbulbs and light-blocking curtains. Keep your room at a comfortable temperature—optimally between 60 and 67 degrees—and limit screen time when you’re in your bedroom. It is also commonly recommended your bed only be used for two things: sleep and sex.
An easy way to carve out that additional 15 minutes of sleep is to power down for the evening. Digital devices can keep your mind occupied, and you awake. The light—TV included—reduces your body’s melatonin production. This is the helpful hormone that regulates your circadian rhythms.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends shutting off your devices as early as is realistic and to, instead, read a book.
Supplement Your Melatonin
In concert with other tips, you can also consider a melatonin supplement if you still need help getting to sleep. This could help complement your body’s natural melatonin production.
Don’t Eat or Drink Right Before Bed
Depending on what advice you get, this point might be a little confusing. Some say not to go to bed on an empty stomach, while others will tell you not to eat anything for at least two or three hours before bed. Well, sorry to say, both are true. If you are hungry to the point of it keeping you awake, it is best to have a light snack. Ideally, something that won’t give you heartburn or a sugar rush, like a piece of fruit or some crackers. On the flip side, eating a heavy meal right before bed may cause discomfort or indigestion.
There are natural and inevitable consequences of drinking too much of anything before bed. Avoid more than a sip or two of water starting an hour or two before bed to limit disrupting sleep to use the bathroom. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks act as stimulants and will also disrupt sleep. Caffeine for the obvious reason—its effects can last for 6-8 hours—but alcohol is less apparent. Although it may give you a sleepy feeling, it can stop your body from reaching the deeper, restorative sleep stage.
Consistency is Key
Developing a nightly routine and sticking to it is a great way to prepare your body (and mind) for sleep. Eventually, your body will know it’s time to wind down when you go through the same motion night after night, similar to a bath and story time when you were young.
Exercise Earlier in the Day
It might sound counterintuitive, but for better sleep, get up early and exercise. Your body temperature and blood pressure naturally increase and decrease throughout the day. How well they regulate later in the day impacts your sleep. When in the normal range, drowsiness kicks in at night, and it’s off to dreamland. A study comparing 7:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. workout times shows early-morning aerobic exercise may be optimal to reinforce nocturnal blood pressure changes and enhance your quality of sleep.
Establishing your optimal sleep pattern may take some experimenting, but it’ll be worth it in the end and your body will thank you. If your sleep issues persist after you try these tips for a while, it may be time to discuss things with a medical health professional. Getting enough quality sleep is that important.
Scott Pack is a health and lifestyle communicator for USANA Health Sciences. He holds bachelor and master’s degrees in English from Weber State University.