How to create a sleep healthy lifestyle
With all the stress and the changes in how we live and work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be one of the growing number of people around the world living with sleep problems and the physical and mental health fallout caused by lack of healthy sleep. One study conducted during the early months of the pandemic noted a 20% increase in clinically significant insomnia.
Even before the pandemic, sleep researchers had noted an increase in insomnia rates, with around 10% of adults in the U.S. experiencing chronic insomnia and 30% reporting short-term insomnia. Now, a year into the pandemic, anecdotal reporting shows even higher rates of insomnia, dubbed coronasomnia.
Sleep is essential for health and wellness
Not getting enough sleep not only leaves you groggy, short-tempered, and less able to focus on the tasks you need to do, it also can have a significant impact on your physical and mental health. Researchers have found associations between lack of consistent, good quality sleep and a wide range of health issues, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease and high blood pressure and cholesterol
- Decreased immune function and increased inflammation
- Increased risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease
- Depression and anxiety
- Decreased fertility from disruption of reproductive hormones in women
- An increased risk of death from any cause for middle aged and older adults who get an insufficient amount of REM sleep
Some studies have also found an association between lack of sleep and damage to the body on the cellular level. Mitochondria, which produce cellular energy, can be damaged by the oxidative stress that occurs when the body is deprived of sleep.
Build a proactive strategy for better sleep
The goal of creating a sleep healthy lifestyle is to help you build and maintain a consistent circadian rhythm (the natural, internal process that regulates sleep) and allow you to get the sleep you need to be healthier. For adults, the recommended amount of sleep per night is 7 to 9 hours. Older adults may need slightly less sleep—7 to 8 hours.
These steps can help you build your strategy for healthy sleep:
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine. Strive to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Try a nutritional approach to improve sleep. Some studies support your mom’s idea that a glass of warm milk can help you sleep. From a scientific perspective, both milk and tart, unsweetened cherry juice are dietary sources of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythms. Drinking a glass of either beverage before bedtime may help you sleep better.
- Make your environment more sleep friendly. Even before you’re getting ready for bed, lower the lighting in your home to signal to your brain that it’s time to start winding down. In your bedroom, keep the temperature cool and the room as dark as possible. And ban screens (TVs, phones, laptops, and tablets) from the bedroom. The blue light from screens dampens the release of melatonin.
- Spend time in the sun. Exposure to sunlight also plays an important role in the maintenance of circadian rhythms, so spend some time outdoors on sunny days.
- Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol initially makes you drowsy, it prevents you from entering deeper sleep, so the quality of your sleep is decreased and you feel less refreshed in the morning.
- End exercise a few hours before bedtime. While exercising during the day can help you reduce stress and feel better, exercise too close to when you go to bed can promote wakefulness.
- Use mind body practices to overcome insomnia: Studies have found that mind body practices such as meditation, tai chi, yoga, and qigong are effective for reducing the severity of insomnia and improving the sleep quality of people who do not have insomnia.
If these strategies don’t decrease the severity of your sleep problems, talk with your doctor, who can check to see if an underlying health problem is causing the issue.