The Importance of Sleep (Hint: It’s Not Just for Beauty)

At this exact moment, you may feel the urge to yawn. Maybe it’s because this article is boring you (say it ain’t so!) or maybe you’re in need of a caffeine fix. While both of these scenarios are likely, they’re probably not the main reason you’re lacking in the energy department.

Why sleep is so important

It’s no secret that sleep is an important part of good health. “During sleep, various hormone systems act to help digest and metabolize nutrients and eliminate various waste products,” explains Dr. Marc Leavey, M.D., Primary Care Physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Too little or too much sleep is associated with increases in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.”

Even your level of hunger or satiety is related to the hormone balances modulated by appropriate amounts of sleep. If you wake up feeling tired, you can also experience impaired functioning, which can lead to dozing off at work or while driving, slower reflexes, being more likely to make a mistake, or experiencing brief moments of sleep, often termed “microsleep.”

Amount of sleep you need

When one or more areas of your life start lagging, sleep is often the first thing to be sacrificed. What starts out as an occasional decrease in sleep hours quite often turns into the bad habit of shaving off an hour (or more!) each night in order to complete the never ending “to do” list—something many of us are guilty of. In fact, the CDC reports that more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. But what is considered enough?

The amount of sleep you need each night depends on a lot of factors including age, lifestyle and work habits. Experts have not been able to identify a precise number of hours needed each night, however their research has allowed them to determine a range which includes the minimum and maximum amount of hours of sleep needed for optimal health. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults ages 18-64 need seven to nine hours each night and adults over 65 need seven to eight hours of sleep.

The sleep and exercise connection

So, you skip out on a couple hours of sleep for a few days. What’s the big deal? Well, if your goal is to improve your health and increase your fitness level, then you better think twice about cutting corners at night.

Leavey says that hormone changes, which include both an increase in insulin resistance and a decrease in glucose tolerance, happen as a result of lack of sleep. He further explains that these physical changes could severely impact one’s ability to maintain good physical fitness, recover from injury and make progress in a physical fitness program.

Tips for a better night’s rest

Occasionally feeling sluggish is one thing, but if you’re dealing with chronic sleeplessness, then it’s time to make some changes.

  • Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Leavey says to get your body used to bedding down and waking up at the same hour every day, even weekends. This also includes practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Power down before you crawl into bed. As tempting as it may be to get under the covers and watch Netflix, viewing screens close to bedtime can inhibit falling asleep. The soft blue glow from a cell phone, laptop or tablet may hurt your sleep.
  • Include exercise in your day. Exercise contributes to a longer, more restful night of sleep. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety levels, which is good news, since both are linked to sleep problems.
  • Be aware of what you put in your body. “Caffeine can disrupt your sleep, so keep coffee, tea, soft drinks and even strong chocolate in the early part of your day and not within six or eight hours of bedtime,” explains Leavey. He also says that while alcohol may make you drowsy, the metabolites can wake you and the diuretic effect of the drink can awaken you with nature’s call in the middle of the night. And if you have a cold, watch for that decongestant, which can also be stimulating and prevent you from having a good night’s sleep.
  • Be aware of your bedroom environment. Your room should be uncluttered and dark—watch out for the little charging lights, clocks, and digital displays glowing all night. A cooler temperature acts as a natural trigger for sleep, so try to keep your room under 70 degrees F. The mattress and pillow should provide adequate support for the way you sleep (on your back, side or stomach).
  • Avoid tossing and turning. If you’re still awake after 20 minutes in bed, get up and read for a while to relax.
  • Get up when your alarm goes off. While this is not groundbreaking advice, the more consistent you get with your sleep routine, the less likely you are to screw up your sleep cycle. If you just can’t fight the temptation to sleep 10 more minutes, try counting backward from three as soon as your alarm goes off. Three, two, one… and then get up.