According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least one in three adults is sleep deprived, and some people feel that number is too low. Regardless of the actual percentage, the world is facing an epidemic of sleep deprivation. Some lost sleep may seem like a small matter, but getting too little sleep has serious health consequences. Our bodies flush toxins from our brains while we sleep, and skipping out on the shut-eye allows those toxins to build up. This can cause numerous problems including brain inflammation.
Anyone who has gone several nights without sleep will be familiar with the common symptoms of sleep deprivation: irritability, lack of concentration and difficulty remembering or recalling information. Lack of sleep can also lead to more physical symptoms such as headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease. In acute or chronic cases, the sleep deprivation associated with insomnia has been known to cause hallucination. Given the long list of negative effects, it is perhaps no surprise that sleep deprivation can be equated to intoxication. In fact, after 17 hours without sleep, a person’s response speed and accuracy are equitable to those of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. Unfortunately, many people spend 17 or more hours awake at a time for a variety of reasons including staying up late to continue studying or working, cultural norms that equate lost sleep with a high work ethic and undiagnosed sleep disorders.
Sleep itself is still only moderately understood, but its importance cannot be overstated. So, in a world of sleeplessness, how can a person get a good night’s sleep?
Consistent Sleep and Wake Times
Because most people short their bodies on sleep during the week, most people sleep in on the weekends. Those extra hours of sleep feel wonderful, but setting the alarm for a noticeably later hour actually hurts a person’s chance of getting a good night’s sleep. Changes in sleep and wake times can wreak havoc on the body’s circadian rhythm. This means that, come Sunday night, a person struggles to go to sleep in time to get up with their weekday alarm. Unpleasant though the thought may be, it is best to go to bed within an hour of the same time every night and get up within an hour of the same time every morning. This keeps the body on a regular sleep-wake schedule and helps regulate a person’s circadian rhythm. If a person is setting sleep and wake times at least seven hours apart, they will find that getting up at the same time every morning and going to bed at the same time every night will make it easier for them to fall asleep at night and leave them feeling more refreshed in the morning.
Consistent Bedtime Routine
The human body likes consistency, and so does the human mind. Setting and keeping a bedtime routine trains the body to associate sleep with certain activities. If a person always brushes their hair and puts lavender lotion on their hands before bed, the brain will start associating those two actions with sleep. Then, when the person brushes their hair or puts on their lotion, the brain starts preparing for sleep. When the nightly routine is consistent and relaxing, a person is more likely to fall asleep quickly than if they do not have a bedtime routine.
Keep the Bedroom Cool
There is a reason that people tend to toss and turn more in the summer months. If a person’s bedroom is too warm or they are sleeping under too many blankets, they will not sleep as well at night. The best temperature for sleep is considered to be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit with the most optimal temperature falling somewhere around 65 degrees. The need for a cool room is due to the relationship between sleep and the body’s internal temperature regulation. The temperature of the human body fluctuates slightly during the day and begins a steady decline when it is time for sleep. If a person’s bedroom is kept too warm, the person’s body temperature may not make the natural dip that is needed for a restful night’s sleep. In fact, some forms of insomnia have been tied to an inability of the body to properly regulate its temperature at night.
Hot Evening Shower
A hot shower or bath at night can help a person simulate the natural decline in temperature that occurs before sleep. A hot shower or bath will raise a person’s body temperature, temporarily making them feel more awake. When they step out from the hot water, though, their body temperature begins to lower. This decline in temperature mimics the body’s natural cooling and can make a person drowsy and more likely to fall asleep quickly.
Sleep Friendly Snack
Most people are at least peripherally aware that their eating habits can affect their sleep. Caffeine takes up to nine hours to leave a person’s system, so that three o’clock coffee pick-me-up will effect a person until midnight. Similarly, sugar and artificial sweeteners will keep a person from falling asleep, and while alcohol may help a person fall asleep, a nightcap may interfere with the REM sleep and slow-wave sleep that are essential for feeling rested in the morning.
Snacks that are sleep-friendly should be light, easily digestible and low in sugar. Spicy foods may interfere with sleep as will rich foods. Bananas, cherries and almonds are good go-to foods at night. Bananas contain magnesium and potassium that will relax muscles, and the tryptophan in bananas will convert to serotonin and melatonin. Almonds also contain magnesium, and cherries are an excellent source of naturally occurring melatonin.
Unplug Before Bed
Human circadian rhythms are based on patterns of periods of light and darkness. When humanity was relying on sunlight or candles for light, there was little to interfere with the body’s natural rhythms. Artificial lighting, however, has wreaked havoc on people’s sleep, and the blue light used in most electronic screens has been shown to suppress melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that is essential for sleep and influences circadian rhythms. Any bright lights can suppress melatonin secretion, but blue light is especially problematic. Why blue light has such a great effect on melatonin production is still unclear, but watching TV or playing Angry Birds is all but guaranteed to lower the body’s melatonin production. For a good night’s sleep, turn off all electronics at least an hour before bed, and turn on table lamps instead of overhead lights.
Read a Book
Reading a book before bed is a good way for a person to relax their body and take their mind off the day’s stresses. Most people have experienced at least one night in their lives where they lay in bed replaying the day’s events or endlessly worrying about the morning. Going to sleep with a story in mind instead of a stressful day can help a person fall asleep instead of fixating on tomorrow’s to-do list.
Reading a book in relatively low lighting will also tire out a person’s eyes. While this is not ideal during the day, tired eyes at night will actually help a person fall asleep. If a person’s eyes are tired, it can trick their brain into feeling sleepier than the person normally would. This can lead to a person falling asleep quickly.
Scientists are still exploring the many processes and elements that effect the body’s sleep cycle. While their understanding of sleep is still developing, there is no denying how important sleep is to a person’s health. Following some basic strategies for healthy sleep should help the many people suffering from sleep deprivation take back their precious hours of shut-eye. If a person has tried everything and nothing has helped, unfortunately, they may be one of the numerous people suffering from an undiagnosed sleep disorder. The best sleep strategies to follow in that case are the doctor’s advice.