Updated: Aug 31
Sleep is pure medicine and nature's way of healing the body. Being in good health is the most precious commodity one can have in this life. Sleep is an essential component in living a quality life.
I learned how detrimental not getting enough sleep was to my body and brain when I was in college. It was my first semester in the physical therapy program. I would get up every morning around 3 A.M. so that I could get to campus early to get a quick workout in and then go study for a couple of hours before my first class. Once I got home from classes, I would study until my eyes couldn’t stay open, which was around 10-11 P.M. I repeated this schedule during the school week for at least 8-9 weeks.
Soon enough, my academic performance started to droop. My grades and test scores were low and my stress was extremely high. I was struggling with understanding the information I was learning and I was unable to apply it. My ability to recall information and make systemic connections with the content suffered greatly. All because of my sleep habits. I was extremely sleep-deprived, mentally and physically exhausted.
Eventually, I found myself faced with having to make a decision to withdraw from the program. In the end, the cost of not making sleep a priority was great. I was forced to forgo my dream of becoming a physical therapist.
Sleep is essential to our health and well-being. Then why do so many of us compromise or undervalue sleep? In this article, I’ll be discussing the negative health effects of not getting enough sleep, common sleep disorders, the benefits of sleep, and how much sleep you need. Additionally, I’ll offer a few tips and strategies to develop a healthy sleep routine in order to get a good night's rest.
We Are Not Getting Enough Sleep
It is estimated that about one in three adults don’t get enough sleep (Ferrari). There are a number of negative health consequences when adults sleep less than six hours per night (O'Connor). Oftentimes, people compromise sleep for work/school, family commitments, binge-watching television shows, scrolling on social media (or as I call it, ‘going down the rabbit hole’) or simply checking their smart devices in bed (Ferrari). Other contributing factors to poor sleep quality and quantity may be due to certain medications and sleep disorders (Dudley, O'Connor, Ferrari).
Common Sleep Disorders That Impact Physical and Mental Health
One of the most common sleep disorders is insomnia which is when individuals want to sleep but can’t and struggle with falling or staying asleep (O'Connor). It is estimated that 15% to 24% of adults have insomnia which can lead to inadequate amounts of sleep and poor quality of sleep (O'Connor). Certain chronic health conditions, mental health disorders, and medications can impact sleep and perpetuate insomnia, in addition to increasing risks and or worsening chronic health conditions. The same holds true for mental health disorders. There is also an increased risk of developing depression with chronic insomnia (Wein).
Sleep apnea is the second most common sleep disorder and is very dangerous. Oftentimes individuals who have sleep apnea feel tired and moody throughout the day and have trouble thinking clearly. There is minimal air exchange that occurs for at least 10 seconds at a time during sleep, resulting in the activation of the body’s fight or flight response also known as the stress response. This causes a spike in blood pressure, and heart rate fluctuations, and subsequently, your brain will wake you up to begin breathing again. In addition to a lack of sleep, there is a higher risk of stroke associated with apnea because it affects the vessels that lead to the brain (Wein).
If you think either of these conditions applies to you (like if you find yourself snoring regularly, waking up choking or gasping for air, and feeling sleepy throughout the day), call your doctor immediately to schedule an evaluation (Wein). Your problem might not just be that you’re spending too much time on your phone. Medical intervention may be needed.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep
Whether it's due to a medical reason or something else, individuals who are not getting enough sleep or making sleep a priority may be at increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (HBP), heart disease, stroke, poor mental health, and premature death (Dudley, O'Connor). Insufficient sleep may increase stress hormone levels and inflammation in the body which places greater stress on the heart, disruptions in blood pressure and blood sugar regulations (O'Connor).
Even one night of sleeping less than six hours can have an immediate effect the following day (Dudley). This can cause feelings of sleepiness, moodiness, reduced productivity and performance, low presenteeism at work and school, and a higher risk for being involved in a car accident (Wein).
There is no doubt that most of us have full schedules and competing demands of our time during the workweek. More often than not, sleep is what is most sacrificed. Many of us look forward to the weekend so we can sleep in and catch up on lost hours of sleep. However, can we pay back our sleep debt by sleeping in over the weekend (Dudley)? Does it matter?
The recommended hours of sleep for adults per day is between seven to nine hours per night (Dudley). The truth is that the daily amount of sleep alone will not suffice; quality of sleep and regularity of bed and wake time matters as well. Sleep isn’t as forgiving as we think it is. It doesn’t like to be moved around to times that are more convenient to our schedules. In other words, making up for the lost hours of sleep on the weekends doesn’t undo the impact of sleep debt. The body’s rhythm is confused when we stay up later during the week and then sleep in later on the weekends. Essentially this is comparable to an at-home jet lag. Prioritizing sleep and consistency of a sleep routine is key.
Essentially, if you reduce your sleep by five hours during the week and make up those extra hours over the weekend you are still paying a price for your health (Dudley).
Why Do We Need Sleep?
What happens while we’re sleeping is quite miraculous. When we are sleeping, our brain and body work hard to repair and restore our cells, energy balance, cognitive function, alertness, and mood (Wein).
When we are well-rested and have enough sleep, we think more clearly, have greater focus, and have quicker reflexes (Wein). In addition, our capacity for new learning increases, and our ability to form memories strengthens throughout the day. Sleep improves the consolidation of experiences and ideas and is proven to enhance attention, problem-solving, and creativity (O’Connor).
Sleep is also essential to every tissue in our bodies. It restores and regulates growth and stress hormones, and strengthens immunity, appetite, breathing, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health (Wein).
Simply put, people who get enough high-quality sleep at the right times do better at work and school, have healthier relationships, and have healthier bodies.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
Here is a graph from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s research on sleep:
Recommended Hours of Sleep
14-17 hours (including naps)
12-16 hours (including naps)
11-14 hours (including naps)
10-13 hours (including naps)
7 or more hours
61- 64 years
65 years and older
How Do I Prioritize Sleep?
For many of us, quality sleep is easier said than done. So how do we get enough? There isn’t a perfect recipe for every person and every situation, but here are some tips:
Consistency is key. Create a sleep schedule and train your body to sleep by going to bed and waking up around the same time every day (including weekends) (O’Connor).
Avoid spending too much time awake in bed. Avoid/limit naps. If a nap is needed, take a short nap of 15 to 20 minutes before 3:00 P.M. (O’Connor).
Sleep when you are sleepy/drowsy. Feeling tired is not the same as feeling drowsy or sleepy (Dudley). If you’re feeling tired and not sleepy, stay out of bed and do a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The objective here is to train your brain to associate your bed only with sleeping (O’Connor).
Create a supportive sleep environment that promotes sound sleep. Be sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Some people use eye masks or blackout curtains to block light. Consider using white noise filters or earplugs when there is noise outside of your bedroom. Set the temperature of your bedroom to be cool. A cooler room with warm blankets or a weighted blanket promotes a good night’s sleep (O’Connor).
Turn off electronic devices with LED screens one hour before bedtime. The brain’s natural sleep rhythms are affected by the blue light that comes from these screens causing the brain to think it is daytime. Avoid reading, watching television or completing work activities while in bed. Reserve your bed for only sleep (and sex) (O’Connor).
Create a bedtime routine by using rituals that signal the body and brain to prepare for sleep. Try taking a hot shower or hot bath one to two hours before sleep or doing gentle stretching, meditation or mindfulness practices, or drinking a hot cup of herbal tea. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, cola, chocolate, and cigarettes four to six hours prior to going to bed. Additionally, limit alcohol consumption four to six hours prior to going to bed (O’Connor). Drinking alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle, which can impact memory (O’Connor). Keep a sleep log to track your sleep patterns - it will give you information on where you can improve (Dudley)!
If you wake up during the night and are struggling to fall back to sleep, get out of bed. Do something that will increase sleepiness for about 15-20 minutes, then go back to bed and try to fall back asleep.
Sleep is incredibly important to our physical and mental health and overall well-being. It is preventative medicine (Dudley). If your goals are to be healthy, free from disease and illness, with energy, and a clear and focused mind, then make sleep a priority. Begin with making small changes with consistency and regularity. Once you have a good rhythm and flow with those changes then build on that by working on new sleep habits. Before you know it you’ve created a sleep routine that promotes a restful and restorative night’s sleep.
If you’re worried about your sleeping habits and need help figuring out your patterns, I am always here to help. Reach out today for your free clarity call and we’ll work together to get you back on track.
1. Katherine Dudley, MD. “Weekend Catch-up Sleep Won’t Fix the Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Waistline.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 24 Sept. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/weekend-catch-up-sleep-wont-fix-the-effects-of-sleep-deprivation-on-your-waistline-2019092417861. 2. CDC. “How Much Sleep Do I Need?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Sept. 2022, www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html.
3. O’Connor, Margaret. “Aging and Sleep: Making Changes for Brain Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 11 Mar. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/aging-and-sleep-making-changes-for-brain-health-2019031116147.
4. “Are You Getting Enough Sleep? Edited by Nancy Ferrari. Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 1 Dec. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/are-you-getting-enough-sleep.
5. “The Benefits of Slumber.” Edited by Harrison Wein, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4 Apr. 2018, newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/04/benefits-slumber.