In a world that values busyness, sleep often falls to the bottom of our priority list. Even if you think you’re getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, some studies indicate that the average person gets closer to six. Based on its prevalence, the CDC now calls insufficient sleep a “public health concern.” Sleep loss is a much bigger deal than we give it credit for.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, sleep loss (considered to be less than seven hours of sleep a night) is associated with a variety of long-term health issues including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, anxiety symptoms, depressed mood, and increased alcohol use. One study from University Hospitals Case Medical Center also found that poor sleep quality accelerates skin aging and weakens the body’s ability to repair skin at night.
Sleep loss can also have more immediate effects, writes Dr. Jim Maas for the Cornell Center for Materials Research. Common symptoms include fatigue, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating, remembering, learning, and interacting socially. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School reports that it is more difficult to concentrate during the day and consolidate memories when you’re sleep-deprived.
Why We Skimp on Sleep
Gretchen Rubin, in her book on habits, Better Than Before, writes that we have a love/hate relationship with getting enough sleep. We know that we need to seven to nine hours of sleep a night, yet we often forgo it to soak up the leisure time we don’t get during the day. On her blog, Rubin shares how a friend, despite knowing all the benefits of quality sleep, chose to skimp on it, saying, “'If I went to sleep earlier, in order to feel sharper the next day, that would just seem like a work-related decision, too. That would mean the [law] firm is getting more of my time.’ He shook his head. 'No way.'" Sometimes those quiet hours after everyone else has gone to bed are the best for recharging after a busy day but, over time, the sleep debt will catch up with you.
The answer, according to Dr. Maas, is to “learn to sleep better and sleep more.” While simple in theory, getting enough quality sleep is a lot more complicated in practice. But here are three tips to get you started.
Use Sleep Technology
The technology you already have at your fingertips like Apple’s iOS10 Bedtime tracker can help you see how much sleep you really are (or aren’t) getting. Other handy apps like, Sleepbot, help you monitor your sleep quality by analyzing your motions and sounds. White noise machines or apps can help lull you to sleep by drowning out any sharp noises that might keep you up or jolt you awake.
Refine Your Bedtime Routine (or Start One!)
Having a bedtime routine as an adult is just as important as it was when you were a toddler. As a child, your routine might have consisted of story time, a glass of warm milk, and getting tucked into bed. Your adult version might look like a bath, a relaxing skin care routine, and journaling or reading. In my counseling practice, establishing a sleep routine is something I work on with my clients. We talk about what time they want to fall asleep and then work backward to plan a step-by-step sleep routine. Then we'll tweak until it feels just right. It’s worth the effort since our bodies and brains thrive on routine.
Trade in Screen Time for ‘Amazing Hour’ Time
This isn’t popular, and it's hard to do. But plenty of studies show that the light emitted from phones and tablets affect our circadian rhythms by slowing melatonin production which tells our brains to stay alert and awake. Instead of drifting off to sleep by scrolling through your favorite social media app or streaming TV in the background, commit to transforming that sacred time before bed into “Amazing Hour.” Senior Editor for The Atlantic, James Hamblin, MD, advises, "Instead of putting your phone in night mode, just put your whole self in night mode." After brushing and flossing, Hamblin recommends writing your friends a letter if you feel like texting them, reading a magazine or book, journaling, or meditation. "The weird thing about Amazing Hour is that it's the one time in the day when I'm trying not to be productive, and sometimes it ends up being the most productive hour of the day."
Quality sleep plays a critical role from basic day-to-day functioning to long-term mental and physical health. It takes a lot of work in the beginning, but the payoff of setting yourself up to achieve quality sleep every night is well worth the effort. Then say goodbye to trouble concentrating, drowsiness, mood swings, and more.
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