Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult. Some people lose out on sleep because they’re raising very young children or due to stress or the demands of their daily schedule. Others simply have trouble falling or staying asleep.
Many Americans aren’t getting the sleep they need. Consider these statistics from the Sleep Foundation:
- Almost half of all Americans report feeling sleepy during the day at least three days a week.
- 10 – 30 percent of adults experience chronic insomnia; among older adults, it’s 30 – 48 percent.
Not getting enough sleep (aka sleep deprivation) takes its toll on us. It’s linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, strokes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and depression. It also increases our risk of falling and causes nearly as many car crash deaths as driving under the influence of alcohol. So it’s worth taking very seriously as a health problem.
Understanding Circadian Rhythms
There are many reasons why someone may not be getting enough sleep, from seasonal changes in sunlight hours to social and lifestyle factors. There’s even a growing body of evidence suggesting that there is a genetic component to people’s sleep patterns and that insomnia may run in some families.
But if you are struggling to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, a good place to start is to make sure your waking and sleeping habits support your circadian rhythms.
Also known as your body’s “biological clock,” these rhythms regulate everything from when you feel sleepy to your hormones, eating habits and digestion, and even body temperature.
Taking control of your sleep habits can make a huge difference in helping you get to sleep and stay asleep. Here are some tips for reinforcing your circadian rhythms.
1. Have a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Make a point of waking up at the same time every day — weekdays or weekends, whether you’re working or on vacation.
Yes, we’d all love to sleep in when we can. But having a consistent wake-up time is the single most important thing you can do to improve your sleep rhythm, training your body to feel sleepy and stay sleepy at the appropriate time.
2. Use Light to Your Advantage
Darkness makes your pineal gland produce melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness. So it’s important that your bedroom is truly dark when you’re going to sleep. Make sure you have good curtains that don’t let any light in.
Also, avoid late-night TV and dawdling on your cell phone! Electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, laptops, and televisions emit blue light that prevents you from feeling sleepy.
Conversely, exposure to light helps cue your body that it’s time to wake up. So, throw open your curtains when your alarm goes off! Maybe even go for an early-morning walk. You can also get a wake-up light that may be more effective than a sound-based alarm clock.
3. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol Before Bedtime
It hopefully goes without saying that you should avoid caffeine before going to bed. The Sleep Foundation recommends at least six hours between your last caffeine dose and your bedtime.
But alcohol can interfere with your sleep, too. You might feel sleepy at first (which is why people used to recommend a “nightcap” before bed). But as it’s processed by your body, alcohol stops acting as a sedative and affects your sleep cycle in a number of destructive ways.
In addition to supporting your overall physical and mental health, regular exercise helps you achieve deeper, more restorative sleep. At least 30 minutes of a mild aerobic workout during the day can make a big difference that same night.
Some people find it best not to exercise too close to bedtime. It can raise your heart rate and core body temperature and release endorphins, all of which can make it harder to get to sleep immediately. So, see what timing works best for you.
But do exercise daily, if possible. It works.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
People’s sleep needs vary significantly by age. According to the CDC, infants need an average of 12 – 16 hours a day; toddlers, 11 – 14 hours; preschoolers, 10 – 13 hours; children between six and twelve years old, 9 – 12 hours; teenagers, 8 – 10 hours; and adults, 7 or more hours.
However, some people need far less sleep than what’s recommended, and others may need more. Also, sleep quality may be even more important than quantity.
You know your sleep quality is good if:
- You fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed.
- You wake up no more than once per night.
- You fall back asleep within 20 minutes if you do wake up.
- You wake up in the morning feeling rested, restored, and energized.
As jazz bandleader Duke Ellington used to say, “If it sounds good, it IS good.” Similarly, if you feel well rested, then you ARE well rested. If you don’t, then you’re not.
Try keeping a sleep diary — a record of what you do every day, when you go to bed, when you wake up, and how you feel the day after. It may help you identify what makes you sleep better or worse. Then you can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
Still Having Sleep Problems?
If all these approaches don’t leave you sleeping well and feeling rested, talk to your primary care doctor. They may have some helpful advice. They might also recommend or prescribe some kind of sleep aid.
You might also have an actual sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. These are usually diagnosed by sleep medicine specialists, who may order a sleep study — where various instruments monitor exactly what is happening when you’re asleep.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. Good sleep is essential for good health.
Sleep well, and sweet dreams!