We all know sleep is important, but you may not realize just how important it truly is. The consequences of a sleepless night go way beyond some grogginess or irritability. According to a Guardian interview with neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker, just one night without sufficient rest can have serious consequences for your health:
“I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”Matthew Walker in The Guardian
Chronic sleep deprivation – that’s anything less than seven hours a night according to Walker – is associated with a laundry list of conditions you’d really like to avoid, including Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and several types of cancer. Multiple studies show a strong relationship between the number of hours you spend sleeping and the number of years you spend living.
Of course, knowing the importance of sleep is only half the battle. Getting to bed was easier when the world went dark at sundown, but electricity gave us the ability to decide for ourselves when the day ends. Internet connections and email mean the workday is never truly over, and when you do finally shut down work for the day, there’s a near-infinite supply of distractions in your phone expertly designed to keep you clicking and scrolling. The modern world is practically engineered to disrupt sleep patterns.
The huge changes in how we live over the past 50 years or so have caused sleep deprivation to reach nearly epidemic levels. In a 1959 American Cancer Society survey, only 2% of people reported getting less than six hours of sleep per night. By 2004, that figure jumped to 30%. A 2016 study from the CDC reports that over a third of Americans get less than the recommended minimum of seven hours.
All of this means that for many, overcoming sleep deprivation takes real effort. But given the consequences, doing whatever it takes to fall asleep is worth it. The habits and routines you follow to sleep well are known collectively as “sleep hygiene,” and the better your sleep hygiene, the better your sleep health.
Avoid stimulants late in the day
You don’t get enough sleep, so you drink coffee to keep you awake and alert. But that same coffee can impede getting enough sleep the following night, leading you to drink more coffee. Try to break the cycle, or avoid stimulants in the afternoon and evening at a minimum, since the effects of caffeine disrupt sleep hours after the initial alertness wears off.
Lighting is everything
Our circadian rhythms – the natural sleep/wake cycle – are governed by the alternating light and dark of day and night. Exposure to blue light from the sun in the morning triggers the release of serotonin, and as darkness sets in, the serotonin is converted to melatonin, telling the body it’s time to sleep.
Working under artificial light during the day and relaxing under artificial light in the evening throws a monkey wrench into the natural cycle governed by the rising and setting sun. To get your body back on track, try to get a significant amount of direct sunshine during the day – the earlier the better. If you have the time, a morning walk is perfect. (And no, sitting in your car during the morning commute doesn’t cut it.)
Just as importantly, make sure you don’t light up the night. Televisions, smartphone screens, and LED light bulbs also emit blue light, which can prevent your brain from making the switch to sleep mode. In a Harvard study, blue light exposure suppressed melatonin for twice as long as green light. To combat this, you can switch to dimmer bulbs that emit red light rather than blue, and avoid exposure to screens within two hours of bedtime.
Have a nightly routine (and stick to it)
Establishing habits that you follow as much as possible every night. Start winding down about an hour before going to bed with an activity you find calming, whether it’s reading, taking a warm bath, or meditating. Like we mentioned above, you should avoid bright lights or screens during this time, and once you’re done, go to bed.
Most people have an alarm telling them when it’s time to wake up, but few do the same in reverse. If you find yourself procrastinating, try setting a reminder that it’s time to sleep, then hold yourself to it.
Make your bedroom as quiet and comfortable as possible
Buy the most comfortable sheets and pillows you can afford. If you live in a city, a white noise machine or fan may help drown out background distractions. And for temperature, cooler is better than warmer. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees.
Dedicate your bed only to sleep (and one other thing)
Try to remove the distractions that keep you from getting enough rest. That means no reading, no emails, no videos on your phone. If you have a TV in your room, consider moving it elsewhere.
Dedicating your bed to sleep also means you shouldn’t spend too much time tossing and turning. Anxiety about falling asleep only makes it more difficult, so if you’re no closer to falling asleep after about 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing for half an hour before trying again.
Give it time
Old habits die hard, so if the sleep hygiene tips don’t do the trick right away, keep at it. It’s also possible that you have an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are 70 million Americans with a sleep disorder, including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea is especially common, with an estimated 22 million sufferers in the U.S., according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. Alarmingly, they claim that 80% of cases of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed, so if you’ve tried everything and still aren’t getting enough rest, talk to your doctor. It may be one of the most important conversations you’ll ever have.