Sleep: A Key to Physical and Mental Health
We’ve all been there: you’ve been rushing all day, trying to finish all of the tasks on your checklist. Life keeps getting in the way, though - the kids need more help with their homework, dinner takes longer to make than planned, the dog squeezed through the fence again and you had to chase her down.
Finally, the kids are in bed, the house is quiet, and you’re so tired… But that checklist is calling your name, reminding you of all the crucial things you haven’t finished… Or you just feel the need to relax with a show for an hour or so, just to unwind before bed…
And before you know it, it’s past midnight and you’re still awake. Time to hustle to bed, try to fall asleep ASAP, and then start the whole process over again.
The State of Sleep
Over the past 100 years, we have become experts in avoiding sleep. Think about our ancestors 4 or 5 generations ago. When the sun went down, there was little else to do apart from rest and sleep; sources of light, like lamp oil or firewood, were precious and used sparingly, and only wealthy households had candles and lamps enough to light rooms well into the night. So, we followed the rhythms of nature - when the world went to sleep, so did we.
Today, we have all the lights we could ask for, including the glow from our TVs, computers, and phones. Nearly every activity we do during the day, we can now do at night - we can work, shop, exercise, read, cook, and more. We can easily escape the natural rhythms of day and night outside our homes. And what is the result? We might be accomplishing more, but our health is suffering.
A large number of adults, teens, and children in the US are sleeping less than they should. According to the CDC, adults should get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, teens should sleep 8-10 hours, and school-age kids should sleep 10-13 hours, in order to give your body and brain enough rest.
Are you getting the sleep you need? If not, you’re not alone - over a third of the US population gets less than 7 hours of sleep per night.
More Sleep = More Health
Research over the decades has shown that adults getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night on a regular basis suffer from a much greater number of physical and mental health problems.
Why is that?
To put it simply, sleep is healing - one of the best natural medicines we can give ourselves. When we sleep, it gives our body time to bring everything back into balance. It gives our immune system a boost to fight off infections, decreases systemic inflammation in our bodies, reduces free radicals and blood pressure, and so much more.
Our bodies, and our minds, depend so much on sleep - we can survive for short periods of time with little sleep, but eventually all that accumulated sleep deprivation catches up with us, and the results can be devastating.
Why Your Body Needs More Sleep
When it comes to long-term chronic health conditions, sleep deprived adults are far more likely to develop
● Heart attacks
● Coronary heart disease
● Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
● Chronic kidney disease
The reasons why sleep-deprived adults are more prone to these conditions is not fully defined, but study after study has shown how lack of sleep can lead to many different chronic conditions. According to the Sleep Medicine Division at Harvard Medical School, the link between sleep and hormones may have a lot to do with it:
“...Scientists have discovered that insufficient sleep may cause health problems by altering levels of the hormones involved in such processes as metabolism, appetite regulation, and stress response.”
Why Your Brain Needs More Sleep
All of the benefits your body gets from a good night’s sleep - lowered inflammation, more balanced hormones, lowered blood pressure, and more - also benefit your brain. While scientists are still figuring out exactly how sleep health, physical health, and mental health are interrelated, the evidence clearly shows that sleep health is directly tied to mental health.
According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, poor sleep quality has a direct effect on mental health, being linked to higher incidence of depressive symptoms, mental distress, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
I hope that this article has helped show you just how crucial sleep is for your overall health. When I’m getting to know a new patient, one of the first things I want to know about them is how much sleep they get per night, and if that sleep is high-quality sleep. Knowing that can help me get a good understanding of why patients might be struggling with certain health conditions.
So, now that you are convinced (I hope!) that you need to focus on your sleep health, here are 5 easy steps that you can incorporate into your nightly routine to get all those wonderful healthy sleep benefits.
1. Set a schedule. Our bodies like predictable rhythms, and are most happy when we take cues from the daylight. Do your best to set a regular schedule for most days - wake up at the same time, and go to sleep at the same time. Get your body into a rhythm, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier you’ll start falling asleep and waking up.
2. Movement and sunlight. Both of these play a part in resetting our body’s internal clock. Moving our bodies during the day helps to get us tired by the time we’re ready for bed, and helps our bodies and brains differentiate between the active day and the restful night. Getting at least 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight every day also helps your body get into a natural wake-sleep rhythm.
3. Be good to your stomach. You’re far less likely to sleep well if you eat a heavy dinner close before bedtime, so if your sleep quality needs help, try eating a smaller dinner. Also try to avoid caffeine and alcohol during and after dinner. Yes, alcohol can make you relaxed and sleepy, but those effects never last long, and going to sleep with alcohol in your system actually leads to more sleep disruption after you fall asleep.
4. Ban screens at bedtime. So many reasons for this! Our screens tempt us to stay awake, fill our brains with less-than-restful thoughts, and increase stress and tension just when we should be at peace and relaxed. Plus, exposure to the blue light from screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin, making it harder for our brains to shift to sleep mode.
5. Darker is better. Even a little bit of light can affect our sleep for the worse. If you have a nightlight or other lights in your room that are on during the night, consider turning them off or covering them to get better rest. Or, if you need to keep them on, try using a sleep mask to block out the light when you’re asleep.
Worried About Your Sleep Health?
Are you concerned about your sleep health, or are you experiencing one or more of the chronic conditions associated with poor sleep? Leave a question in the comments below, or reach out to me directly, and we can get you started on your journey to uncovering the causes behind your symptoms, and finding lasting healing.