The importance of sleep is widely ignored and the cost rarely considered, even though it includes everything from reduced work productivity and increased risk of serious accidents to psychological deterioration and physiological dysfunction.
The proof is quite clear: You destroy your health if you regularly ignore your body’s need for sleep to repair and recharge. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that lack of sleep is a public health epidemic, noting that insufficient sleep has been linked to a wide variety of health problems.
Skyrocketing rates of insomnia among service members in the U.S. military could even affect operational readiness, a recent study warns.1 Over the past decade, insomnia among military service members has quadrupled, and sleep apnea has risen five-fold.
As for how much sleep you need, research shows most adults need right around eight hours of sleep each night for optimal health and disease prevention. Children and teens need more. You will also typically need more sleep when you’re ill or recuperating from an illnesss.
Among the many health problems that poor sleep can trigger or contribute to are:
|Increased risk of car accidents||Increased sensitivity to pain, as painkillers are ineffectual in treating the hypersensitivity induced by sleep loss.
In other words, painkillers may not work if you’re sleep deprived2
|Reduced ability to perform tasks|
|Reduced ability to learn or remember||Reduced productivity at work||Reduced creativity|
|Reduced athletic performance||Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease||Increased risk of depression and anxiety. Insomnia in particular has been found to follow anxiety and precede depression3|
|Increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease||Decreased immune function||Slowed reaction time|
|Reduced regulation of emotions and emotional perception||Poor grades in school||Increased susceptibility to stomach ulcers|
|Exacerbation of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and cancer||Increased expression of genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk and stress4||Premature aging by interfering with growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep|
Science Alert recently published an article reviewing nine common sleep problems and some tools and techniques to address them, such as:5
Sleep is an outcome of two types of variables:
To get a good night’s sleep, you want your sleepiness level to be high and the noise level to be low. If the noise is conceptually greater than your level of sleepiness, you will not fall asleep. Examples of body noise include pain, discomfort, indigestion or residual caffeine from drinking coffee too late in the day. Environmental noise includes traffic, a snoring partner, music, lights or being too hot.
The most common type of mind noise is called “cognitive popcorn,” those unstoppable thoughts running through your mind as soon as your head hits the pillow. This is also the most commonly reported cause of insomnia.
As noted in a recent CNN article on this topic:6
“Some nights, it’s like you can’t get your brain to shut up long enough for you to fall asleep. You’re mentally reviewing the day you just completed while also previewing the day ahead; sometimes, your mind may even reach way back into the archives and pull up something embarrassing you did back in high school.
So fun! …There’s no one solution that will work for everybody, of course, so instead, we’ve rounded up suggestions from eight sleep experts.”
Here’s a summary of some of the tips gleaned from sleep experts, with regard to quieting racing thoughts:
1. Use creative distractions. If worry has you in its grip, try thinking of something else that interests you but is of no importance. Sleep expert Neil Stanley, Ph.D., said, “I fly a lot, so I imagine I have my own private jet and how would I arrange the furniture on it. If you’re someone who likes going to music festivals, what would your lineup be?”
2. Get out of bed. Rather than tossing and turning, allowing frustration to grow, get out of bed. Try writing your thoughts down; just be sure to keep the lights dim. Telling yourself you’re going to try to stay awake instead may also have the paradoxical effect of making you sleepy. The reason for this is because once you’re OK with being awake, your frustration and arousal level drops, making it easier to fall asleep
3. Make a plan to spend more time in the sun. Oftentimes, lack of sun exposure during the day (especially in the early morning) is to blame for persistent sleep problems. Bright sunlight first thing in the morning and/or around solar noon helps set your internal clock, allowing you to fall asleep “on schedule”7
4. Sleep naked. While not addressed by CNN’s sleep experts, one of the benefits of sleeping in the buff is improved sleep quality, in part by preventing overheating. One study showed a surface skin temperature difference of as little as 0.08 degrees F (or 0.4 degrees C) led to sounder sleep8,9,10
5. Do some controlled breathing. Breathing is both an involuntary and a voluntary process. You can alter the speed and the depth of your breathing, and you can choose to breathe through your mouth or your nose. These choices lead to physical changes in your body. Slow, deep and steady breathing activates your parasympathetic response while rapid, shallow breathing activates your sympathetic response, involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones.
The combination of controlled breathing with counting can be particularly effective when your mind refuses to shut down at night, as it gives your mind something to focus on. One breathing exercise involving counting that you could try is the 4-7-8 breathing technique taught by Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s a potent remedy for anxiety, as it acts as a natural tranquilizer for your nervous system.
While one to two cups of black organic coffee can be healthy, drinking too much, especially in the afternoon or evening, can overstimulate you and, in the long term, alter your body’s internal clock.11 Ditto for alcohol. While it may make you nod off quicker, research shows drinking alcohol makes you more likely to wake during the night, leaving you feeling less rested in the morning.
Spicy foods and unhealthy fatty or sugary foods can also lead to fragmented sleep,12 especially when eaten late in the evening. This is thought to be due to the brain chemical hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that helps keep you awake and also plays a role in appetite.
Eating too close to bedtime, or very late at night when you’d normally be sleeping, may also throw off your body’s internal clock. Avoiding food for at least three hours before bed will lower your blood sugar during sleep and help minimize mitochondrial damage. It will also jump-start the glycogen depletion process so you can shift to fat-burning mode.
A 2012 study13 offers powerful confirmation of this recommendation. It found the mere act of temporarily altering your typical eating habits — such as getting up in the middle of the night for a snack — causes a certain protein to desynchronize your internal food clock, which can throw you off-kilter and set a vicious cycle in motion.
Aside from getting the correct kind of light exposure during the day and avoiding excessive amounts of light and blue light at night, it’s also important to address the electromagnetic field (EMF) emitted from wiring and electronic devices. EMF from electronic devices not only impairs melatonin secretion, it also harms your mitochondria by producing oxidative damage.
EMF exposure has also been linked to changes in brain neurons that affect memory and the ability to learn.14 Eliminating EMF exposure can be tricky, as most homes are flooded with electric currents. Still, you can reduce EMF to a smaller or greater degree, depending on how far you’re willing to go. Here are some suggestions to consider that may improve your sleep quality:
• Turn off your Wi-Fi at night. You can also pull your circuit breaker to your bedroom before bed as this will decrease electromagnetic interference in your room in addition to the microwave radiation.
You aren’t using your Wi-Fi at night so why keep it on? Why expose yourself to needless and dangerous microwave energy that impairs your mitochondrial function? Please, get a switch for your router and turn it off every night when you go to bed. Your body and health will thank you for it
• Avoid running electrical cords underneath your bed
• Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head, or ideally out of the room. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least 3 feet. Portable phone bases and wireless routers should be kept as far away from your bedroom as possible
• Avoid sleeping with your head against a wall that contains unshielded electric wiring and/or electric meters, circuit breaker panels, televisions or stereos on the other side. Move your bed 3 feet away from the wall, install an EMF protection canopy over your bed, or turn off the power breaker to your bedroom
In the short term, you could try a gentle sleep aid while implementing more permanent lifestyle and/or environmental changes. Natural sleep remedies that may help you get a good night’s sleep include:
As you can see, sleep problems can have any number of root causes and contributing factors, but considering the alternative, taking the time to identify your triggers is well worth the effort. Sleeping well is a foundational aspect of good health, so every effort should be made to get as high-quality sleep as possible