by Lauren David, Ph.D.
When asked directly, most people would say that sleep is important. But why is it important? What does sleep do for us, exactly? How much sleep do we actually need? And if we’re having trouble sleeping, what are some ways to improve our sleep?
Sleep is one of the very basic components of our functioning as a human. Scientifically, sleep is a physiological state that allows the mind and the body to rest from the day and get us ready for tomorrow. Our bodies are still, our muscles are regenerating, our brains are recharging. It is an important fact of life that everybody needs to sleep, as much as some people like to deny it.
When we sleep is influenced by our biological rhythms and the presence of certain hormones in the body. Circadian rhythms are like a 24-hour internal clock that signal a person to feel sleepy and alert at regular intervals during the day, and are also known as our sleep/wake cycles. Every person has a slightly different circadian rhythm, but typically people experience the largest dips in alertness between 2:00 and 4:00 am (when most people are already sleep) and 1:00 and 3:00 pm, and are most alert around the noon hour.
Research has found, however, that teenagers and young adults can experience what is called a delayed circadian rhythm. This means that young people experience their peak sleepiness later in the night (usually 4:00 to 6:00 am), which makes it harder for them to go to sleep at a “normal” time, and much harder to wake up during the morning hours. Having a delayed circadian rhythm likely means that the person’s natural sleep/wake cycle is out of sync with the broader schedule of their community, which can also make it difficult to wake up for school or be on time to work or class.
The actual biological mechanism that creates circadian rhythms is a hormone called melatonin, which is controlled by a part of the brain known as the pineal gland. The release of melatonin is triggered by dim, evening light, and causes feelings of sleepiness to help prepare us for bed (usually around 9 pm). However, the advent of technology that uses bright lights, such as cell phones, tablets, computers, TVs, or game systems, throws a wrench in nature’s plans. Being exposed to this bright light delays the release of melatonin into the body, which then also delays feelings of sleepiness to later into the night. This, of course, affects when a person will be able to fall asleep.
Why Does it Matter?
On average, an adult human needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night for the body and mind to be fully rejuvenated and refreshed each day. Teenagers need more like 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep, and children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t sleeping the recommended amount, some getting as few as 3 to 6 hours on a consistent basis. Interestingly, research has found that someone who is sleep deprived acts a lot like someone who is intoxicated, raising concerns for that person’s ability to drive safely and function adequately during the day.
Importantly, sleep is related to many areas of our functioning as human beings. People who are “poor sleepers” (i.e., consistently do not get enough sleep or do not have good quality sleep) are likely to see their physical health affected. For instance, poor sleepers tend to have less healthy eating habits. They drink more sugary sodas, eat more snacks and less regular meals, eat inconsistently throughout the day, eat more sweets, eat less fruits and vegetables, and are less likely to eat breakfast (which is associated with having better attention and alertness throughout the day). Poor sleepers are also more likely to use caffeine and/or alcohol, neither of which are healthy if not used in moderation.
In terms of emotional health, poor sleepers are less able to regulate their emotions, and feel that they experience more stress than people who sleep well. Family and intimate partner relationships are more likely to feel strained, and to feel less supportive. People who do not sleep well experience more mental health difficulties, including stress, depression, and anxiety, which usually have a reciprocal effect of decreasing sleep duration and quality.
Mentally, people are not able to learn as effectively after only a few hours of sleep. Being sleepy is associated with having trouble paying attention and remaining focused. For students of any age, these findings are directly related to how well they are able to do in school. One of the main mental functions of sleep is to encode and consolidate new information into lasting memories, which can be significantly impeded if someone isn’t getting enough sleep. Additionally, being sleepy and less attentive during the day makes it harder to absorb new information and recall previously learned information (such as on an exam).
10 Habits for Better Sleep
To set yourself up for the best chances of sleeping well, below are several tips collectively known as “sleep hygiene” that represent the best practices for experiencing quality sleep. These tips include daily behaviors, the sleep environment, pre-sleep behaviors, and creation of a nighttime sleep routine.
Wake up and go to bed at a similar time, every day of the week.
When it comes to sleep, consistency is key! Our internal biological rhythms enjoy consistency, so it’s helpful to try to start and end your day around the same time, no matter the day of the week. This can be more challenging on weekends, but sleeping for extended amounts of time to “catch up” on weekend nights likely means you’re not getting enough weeknight sleep to begin with.
Limit daytime napping.
Unless you are consistently getting a shorter-than-average amount of sleep on weeknights, it’s important to try not to nap during the day, as this negatively impacts your circadian rhythm and makes it more challenging to fall asleep at your normal bedtime.
Use your bed for only what it is meant for and limit time in bed not sleeping.
Our brains are very good at making associations. This means if you typically do your homework on your bed or spend time sitting in bed worrying about your day, your brain is going to come to associate your bed with mental activity and/or physiological arousal. These states are the opposite of the mental and physical states that prepare us for sleep and should be avoided. As much as you can, use your bed to sleep and use other spaces for other activities. If you are feeling too cognitively alert to sleep, it is best to get out of bed for a while and engage in a relaxing activity to help calm your thoughts.
Sleep in a comfortable and inviting environment.
Bedrooms should be set up in a way to be most conducive to sleeping well. This means creating a physical space that is as comfortable as possible (thinking about mattress, pillows, blankets, etc.) and setting the air temperature to be cooler (around 68-72° F). This type of environment invites the body to slow down, relax, and most easily be able to sleep.
Sleep in a quiet room, free of distracting noises.
Included in the sleep environment tips is controlling the level of noise in the bedroom. Some people are unable to turn off all sounds (like if they have loud neighbors) or may prefer to have background noise, and might want to invest in ear plugs or a white noise machine.
Sleep in a dark room.
Just as we know that the bright lights coming off screens are unhelpful in the sleep process, light of any kind can be distracting and get in the way of easily falling asleep. Limiting light exposure in the bedroom may mean turning digital alarm clocks in the opposite direction from the bed, turning off cell phones and computers, using blinds or blackout curtains, or even using an eye mask to cover your eyes as you sleep.
Exercise earlier in the day.
Exercising and engaging in strenuous physical activity is best avoided in the 3-5 hours before you want to go to sleep, as too much activity can reenergize a person and make it harder to relax the body. Similarly, other mentally arousing activities (such as doing work, paying bills, or having an argument) should also be limited in the evening hours. These mental states make it more difficult for the mind to “turn off” enough to sleep.
Limit use of substances before bed.
Drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages and smoking cigarettes or marijuana in the 3-5 hours before bed is also harmful to experiencing quality sleep. These substances change the way your body functions and can disrupt your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep during the night.
Moderate “screen time” in the hour before bedtime.
With the harmful effects of bright lights on the body’s release of melatonin, using modern technology in the hour or so before bed should also be limited. This means turning off the TV, putting away your phone, not sending any emails or streaming any shows, and not using any other types of electronics that have a bright light. In doing so, you’ll be allowing your body’s natural rhythms to function properly and be keeping yourself from becoming overly mentally stimulated before bed.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
Much like small children, adults also benefit from having a relaxing bedtime routine. This might look like changing into comfortable clothes, dimming the lights, and getting in bed in the hour before you’d like to fall asleep. Your routine could also include taking a warm shower, reading for pleasure, listening to calming music, or practicing a breathing or relaxation exercise. Each individual is likely to find a different routine that works best for them, but keep the first nine tips in mind when crafting your routine.
For a lot of people, the biggest challenge to experiencing quality sleep comes from having difficulty slowing down the mind once they are in bed and trying to fall asleep. Many people benefit from using guided relaxation exercises and meditations designed to help one drift off into a peaceful slumber. Apps such as Headspace, Calm, and Stop, Breathe and Think all have such exercises, and the “Body Scan for Sleep” exercise from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (easily found with a quick google search) can be helpful as well.
If you’ve considered your sleep habits and made changes to your routines but are still having trouble sleeping, it’s time to reach out to an expert. Many sleep-related issues stem from medical conditions (such as sleep apnea) or psychological concerns (such as anxiety). Your primary care doctor or a sleep specialist can be helpful resources, as can a therapist. If you would like to get connected to a therapist at Deep Eddy, see our website at https://deepeddypsychotherapy.com/ or call our front desk at 512-956-MIND to speak to a scheduling specialist.