We're always on the lookout for ways to transform our lives, but sometimes we forget that, along with good nutrition and exercise, there's another important habit within our control: sleep. No matter our age, getting the right amount of sleep improves health, productivity, wellness, quality of life, and public safety. Sleep is food for the brain. During sleep, important body functions and brain activity occur.
For many, sleep does not come easy. Poor sleep health is a common problem with 25 percent of U.S. adults and 85 percent of teens reporting not getting enough sleep. Our sleep problems are such an issue that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refer to them as "a public health epidemic." There are many factors that keep people from getting enough sleep. Causes for lack of sleep include busy schedules, active social lives, and sometimes a wrong view of sleep.
There are two different types of sleep: Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM). NREM is also referred to as "quiet" sleep. During quiet sleep, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occur, and important hormones are released for growth and development. REM is "active" sleep. It is during active sleep that dreaming occurs. Both are important in maintaining health.
Sleep is a key factor for growth, health, and well-being. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect mental health and physical health, including prevention of long-lasting diseases, quality of life, and safety. Adequate sleep is necessary to:
• Fight off infection.
• Support the body’s ability to break down foods.
• Perform well in school.
• Work effectively and safely.
• Pay attention.
• Learn, problem-solve, and remember.
• Help maintain a healthy weight.
Sleep is especially important to children and teens. When kids get enough sleep, they are able to pay better attention in school, be creative, think of new ideas, fight sickness, be in a good mood, get along with friends and family, and solve problems better. Sleep also triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues.
The suggested amount of sleep changes over the course of a lifetime. Newborns tend to sleep in naps for a total of 16-18 hours a day. According to the CDC, it’s recommended that preschool-aged children get 11 to 12 hours of sleep a day, school-aged children should get at least 9 to 11 hours a day, teens need 8-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours a day. Keep in mind that there is no “magic number,” and individual sleep needs differ.
Some people nap as a way to deal with sleepiness. Naps can provide a short-term boost in alertness and performance. However, it doesn't provide all of the other benefits of nighttime sleep, so it won’t help make up for lost sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, limit naps or take them earlier in the afternoon. Adults should nap for no more than 30 minutes.
Another common activity is to sleep more on weekends than on workdays or go to bed and get up later on days off. Extra sleep on days off may upset your body's sleep–wake rhythm. Therefore, you should try to keep the same sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends or limit the difference to no more than about an hour.
To improve your sleep habits, try to:
• Make sure that you allow yourself enough time to sleep.
• Use the hour before bed for quiet time. Avoid exercise and bright lights, such as from a TV or computer screen. Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark. Light may signal the brain that it's time to be awake. Try taking a bath or shower or reading a book to calm down from the day.
• Avoid heavy or large meals within a couple hours of bedtime. Also, avoid alcoholic and caffeinated drinks as well as nicotine before bed. Large meals before bed can mess with your blood sugar levels and cause you to wake more often or sleep less soundly.
• Spend time outside every day and be physically active. Physical activity, prior to the hour before bed, can improve your sleep quality and increase your sleep length. It does this by helping to reduce stress and tiring you out. In addition, exercise and natural sunlight raises your body temperature slightly, then allows the temperature to drop and triggers sleepiness shortly after.
• Keep a bedtime routine. By doing the same things every night before sleep, you teach your body that it’s time for bed.
• Try keeping a diary or to-do list. If you jot notes down before you go to sleep, you’ll be less likely to stay awake worrying.
For more information on how sleep affects your health, visit the NIH’s website at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/why.
-- Andrew Warlen, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.