For an activity that takes up roughly one-third of your life, there are still many mysteries surrounding sleep. Scientists still don’t know exactly why we do it or what occurs when we do, but it’s abundantly clear that sleep is crucial for your survival. In fact, virtually all animals require sleep, and if you don’t get enough, your health and your state of mind can suffer.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
The United States is, unfortunately, not a nation of deep sleepers. Blame it on the economy (one-third of Americans say they lose sleep over economic and financial concerns), hectic schedules, or simply staying up too late, about 20 percent of Americans sleep less than six hours a night and another 20 percent report sleep problems. 1
As you might suspect, those who don’t get enough shut-eye say they are too tired to work efficiently, exercise or eat healthy. More than half of adults also say they have driven drowsy in the past year, which could be deadly.
Lack of sleep also impacts your body directly, and research shows it can influence:
- The state of your immune system
- Tumor growth
- Hormone production
- Weight gain
When lack of sleep progresses to insomnia, which is estimated to impact up to 15 percent of adults on a chronic level, research shows it can be deadly; men with insomnia have a four-fold higher risk of death compared with normal sleepers, and that rises to a seven-fold increase among those with diabetes or high blood pressure.2
4 Top Secrets to Getting Enough Sleep
By now you’ve probably heard the drill that establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, such as winding down with a cup of chamomile tea and a warm bath, as well as going to bed and waking at the same times each day, are conducive to restful slumber. This is true, and well worth noting, but what if this just isn’t enough?
Chances are there may be other steps you can take to encourage your body to fall asleep, steps that you may be inadvertently overlooking…
1. Plan for the Change in Seasons
Just when you got used to the sun staying out until well into the evening, daylight savings time hits and boom — it’s dark at 4 in the afternoon. This change may leave you feeling sleepy well before it’s time to go to bed, and this is actually a natural response. Your body picks up on levels of light and darkness and sends signals to your brain’s pineal gland to trigger the production of hormones involved in your sleep-wake cycle. When it gets dark, your body produces the hormone melatonin, which tells your body it’s time to go to sleep.
The trouble is, most of us are far too busy to hit the hay in the early evening hours, and as a result fight the urge to sleep. That, and the fact that we are exposed to artificial light, which suppresses melatonin production, can send confusing signals to your body, making it difficult to fall asleep when the time comes.
What can you do about all of this?
When fall and winter come, you may want to naturally shift your schedule to more closely mimic the natural light/dark cycles outdoors. If possible, go to sleep a little earlier and wake earlier, closer to when the sun naturally rises and sets. You can also help your melatonin production to stay on track by keeping your exposure to artificial light after nightfall to a minimum. At the very least, be sure you are winding down well before you plan to fall asleep, and this includes turning off your TV, computer, and smartphone … see below for more details.
2. Turn off the Technology
Watching TV or working on your computer in the evening hours are detrimental to sleep not only because they lull you into staying up later than you should and stimulate your mind (it’s not easy to fall asleep after an hour of upsetting world news or work deadlines), but also because of the light they emit — blue light.
Blue light interferes with the production of melatonin and exposure in the hour or two before bedtime will probably interfere with your sleep. Said Charles Czeisler, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) press release:3
“Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to fall asleep.”
NSF’s 2011 Sleep in America poll was focused on this very topic, and it found that technology use among Americans is pervasive before bedtime. In all, 95 percent of those polled said they used some type of electronics, such as a television, computer, video game or cell phone, at least a few nights a week within the hour before bed. Czeisler continued:
“This study reveals that light-emitting screens are in heavy use within the pivotal hour before sleep. Invasion of such alerting technologies into the bedroom may contribute to the high proportion of respondents [more than 60%] who reported that they routinely get less sleep than they need.”
So if you have trouble sleeping, try an experiment: shut off your TV, computer and all other electronics a couple of hours before bed. Pick up a good book or a journal instead, and see if you’re able to sleep better.
3. Use Nutrition and Supplements to Your Advantage
What you eat and drink clearly can have an impact on your sleep quality. Here’s what you need to know:
- Caffeine: One of the most obvious hurdles to sound sleep is caffeine, which is a stimulant that will block hormones in your brain that make you sleepy — a good thing first thing in the morning, but not so much when you’re trying to fall asleep. Keep in mind that the effects of caffeine can begin in as few as 15 minutes and can persist in your body for several hours. Everyone processes it slightly differently, but generally it takes about six hours from consumption to eliminate half of the caffeine,4 so a cup of coffee or tea late in the afternoon could impact your bedtime. Remember, too, that caffeine is not only in coffee but also in tea, chocolate, certain soft drinks and some medications, so plan accordingly.
- Magnesium: Magnesium helps to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, and may help calm nerves, relax muscles and promote restful sleep. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that significant numbers of adults do not consume the recommended amounts of magnesium. Among adults, 68% consume less than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, and 19% consume less than 50% of the RDA. Magnesium is found in unpolished grains, nuts, avocadoes, and green vegetables, particularly leafy, green vegetables, as well as in supplement form.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a naturally occurring substance that has both powerful antioxidant and sleep-regulating properties. The amount of melatonin produced by the pineal gland, however, is reported to decline with age, possibly accounting for the sleep disturbances often found in older adults. You can take melatonin in supplement form, and it’s also in many fruits (especially tart cherries) and vegetables as well as olive oil, wine and beer, at lower levels.
- Tryptophan: Responsible for your post-Thanksgiving dinner nap, tryptophan is most often associated with turkey, but this sleep-inducing amino acid actually comes from all dietary proteins, which are its building blocks. Carbohydrates, meanwhile, make tryptophan more available to your brain, so if you want a light bedtime snack choose one with both protein and carbs, like peanut butter or cheese and crackers.5
- Valerian: Valerian root has been used since ancient Greek and Roman times for its various health benefits, most notably for its ability to promote restful sleep. Researchers believe this compound helps induce sleep by increasing the amount of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) — the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that limits brain activity — and slowing its reuptake. This produces a calming effect so you can relax and fall asleep.When choosing a valerian supplement, make sure it contains a “root extract” that is standardized to deliver a guaranteed amount of the active compound, valerenic acid. Also, as with all supplements, make sure you pruchase a high quality product. In recent independent quality testing, 78 percent of valerian supplements failed due to subpotency or because they were tainted with heavy metals cadmium and lead. Valerian supplements are best taken about 30 minutes before bedtime.
It may sound surprising that physical activity can help you sleep, but it does just that. After a group of previously sedentary adults began exercising four times a week, one study found sleep quality improved so much that previously “poor” sleepers became “good” sleepers. They also reported less sleepiness and more vitality during the day.6
Other research has shown that physical activity during the day shortens the time it takes to fall asleep in children, with every hour of sedentary daytime activity linked to an additional three minutes to fall asleep at night. This may not sound like a huge impact, but those who fell asleep faster also stayed asleep longer, for an extra hour for each 10-minute reduction in how long it took to fall asleep.7
This is just one more reason to add a regular exercise program to your family’s lifestyle, but one caveat to remember: don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as this can keep you awake. Ideally, exercise at least three hours prior to bedtime so you have time to unwind afterward and your body temperature has a chance to cool off (your body temperature rises with exercise, but a cooler body temperature is more conducive to sleep).
Taken together, the sleep tips above should help you to get the rest your mind and body need to thrive. If not, don’t hesitate to discuss your sleep troubles with your health care practitioner, who may be able to recommend even more lifestyle changes to help improve your sleep quality and duration.
1. National Sleep Foundation, 2009 Health and Safety Study
2. Sleep. 2010 Sep;33(9):1159-64
3. National Sleep Foundation, Technology and Use and Sleep, Sleep in America Poll 2011 press release
4. National Sleep Foundation, Caffeine and Sleep
5. National Sleep Foundation, Food and Sleep
6. Sleep Medicine 2010 Oct;11(9):934-40.
7. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2009 Sep;94(9):686-9.