Sleep is something that often falls far from our minds in the chaos and busyness of daily life. We focus on family time, work time, diets, exercise, and our favorite Netflix shows. But sleep often slips to the bottom of the list as we try to squeeze everything we can from a day.
Still, sleep is one of the most essential factors for health, and there are consequences to shorting ourselves in the sleep department. So how can you set proper sleep boundaries and establish a healthy routine? We’ll explore the various aspects here.
What Causes Sleep Problems?
Sleep is healthy for us, and there isn’t a lot of argument on that fact. Parents ensure that children get naps and proper bedtimes, and teenagers, while sometimes preferring late nights, will tend to make up for their sleep deficit by staying in bed as late as possible.
When we become adults, most of us have a shift in viewpoint on sleep, and suddenly it’s no longer a necessity, but a luxury, and one that frequently gets bumped when the busyness of life intervenes. We stay up later to get things done, and we wake up earlier to get a jump on the day. We don’t have time for naps because no one pays us to sleep.
While this isn’t true for all adults, an overwhelming majority aren’t getting enough sleep. We can prioritize healthy eating and exercise, but sleep is an equally essential component in the triad of basic wellness. The other two can’t undo a lack in this essential department.
The CDC estimates that 50 to 70 million adults have a sleep disorder of some kind. (1) Nearly 40 percent of all adults don’t get enough sleep, with the basic adult requirements falling between seven to nine hours per night. (2) Adults under age 50 tend to fall into the most sleep-deprived category. (3)
While some adults have circumstances that impact their ability to sleep, such as having an infant or small child, others may be under significant stress from high-demand jobs and be unable to fall asleep. Chronic health disorders can also influence sleep, along with a poor sleep environment, and many other factors. Sleep problems can be caused, influenced by, or worsened from any of the following: (4,5,6,7,8)
- Bipolar disorder
- Blue light exposure (i.e. to smartphones, computers, or other devices)
- Chronic conditions
- Ear infections
- Excess caffeine intake
- Graves’ disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Pharmaceutical side effects
- Poor sleep habits
- Restless leg syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sugar intake
- Tension headaches
- Thyroid disorders
While these aren’t the only factors that influence sleep, they can have a significant impact on a person’s health and wellness, including the ability to rest.
7 Things That Happen While You Sleep
People often think of sleep as something that we do when we are tired, mentally or physically, but in reality, our bodies are very metabolically active when we are asleep.
There are four stages to a complete sleep cycle, the first three being stages one, two, and three of non-rapid eye movement, culminating in REM sleep, or rapid eye movement. Dreams occur during REM sleep. The entire sleep cycle takes approximately two hours, with the cycle repeating three or four times during a single night’s sleep.
During REM sleep, the brain is highly active. This can be viewed as the brain’s chance to process and essentially clean up what’s going on in there. This can be why dreams are sometimes related to real-life stressors, fears, or people in our lives. (9)
The brain also imprints new memories and knowledge for long-term storage while you’re sleeping. (10) This is why it can be beneficial to get a good night of sleep before a big test, instead of spending the whole night cramming.
The liver keeps busy during the day detoxing the body from the toxins and other harmful substances, but while you’re sleeping, it takes the time to repair and rebuild. (11) This is essential for a healthy liver, and strong organs overall. The heart rate slows, breathing deepens, and muscles and joints get a break. All of this is essential for repair and starting the next day off strong.
4. Blood Pressure Break
While you’re sleeping, your blood pressure also drops, giving your arteries a bit of a break. Blood pressure is highest during the mid-morning, and drops throughout the day, but for those with high blood pressure, this nighttime break is even more essential. (12)
5. Growth Hormone
Even after we reach adulthood, our muscles still need growth hormones to strengthen, our bones are always in various stages of remodeling and repairing, and our cells are always regenerating. These things happen while we sleep. This is one of the main reasons why sleep for growing children is so essential—without it, they will literally run short on enough growth hormone—but sleep isn’t actually less important for adults, even though a lack won’t literally stunt our growth. A lack of growth hormone in adults, however, can have other consequences. (13)
6. Hormone Balance
Beyond growth hormone, the body has many other hormones that count on you getting enough rest. Proper sleep helps to regulate leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that regulate appetite. When we run short on sleep, this can lead to food cravings, increased appetite, and weight gain. Well-rested individuals are more prone to having normal appetites. (14)
Reproductive and thyroid hormones also rely on a healthy sleep cycle to keep levels steady and balanced. When hormone levels don’t wildly fluctuate, overall health, mood, and weight will remain more balanced. (15)
7. Gut Health
While sleep itself doesn’t add or remove gut bacteria, it can influence ratios and balance in the microbiome. When sleep is reduced, bad bacteria can proliferate and the more beneficial bacteria may be harmed. (16)
While diet has a significant impact on what bacteria we specifically have, sleep can certainly strengthen or weaken the good guys in our gut. Since the gut has ties to numerous aspects of overall health, including chronic conditions and autoimmunity, sleep is an essential part of a wellness routine.
Should You Take Supplements or Sleep Aids?
Over-the-counter sleep aids are so popular because they are readily accessible, but even more significant is that more than nine million Americans regularly take prescription sleep aids. (17) Lack of sleep is a major cultural crisis. But as is frequently proven, just because something is available doesn’t make it safe. So should sleep aids really be as relied on as they are?
Even natural aids aimed at improving sleep are some of the top selling dietary supplements, most notably, melatonin. Again—just because they’re natural and readily available, should they really be taken so often?
The major problem with sleep aids of any kind is that they don’t really fix the underlying problem. In some cases, they manage symptoms or side effects associated with treatments or conditions where improving sleep may not be possible. In other cases, though, they mask the root problem and at the same time, create a dependence on them which further disrupts the ability to have a normal sleep routine.
If sleep issues are truly a problem, it’s better to consult a professional who will investigate the cause rather than dabble in experimenting with your own sleep concoctions.
8 Ways to Improve Your Sleep Tonight
It can be easy to assume that OTC or supplement sleep aids are harmless, but they can still come with side effects. Rather than self medicating with sleep aids, consider trying some of the following ways to naturally improve sleep mechanisms.
1. Quit Caffeine
Even if you don’t think you’re caffeine sensitive, when it is consumed within six hours of bedtime it can dramatically mess with the ability to fall or stay asleep. (18) If you are having sleep issues of any kind, it might be worth quitting all caffeine for 30 days or longer and seeing if your sleep quality improves. While caffeine is certainly not entirely bad, it is still a stimulant, and sleep-sensitive individuals should consider this as a primary option.
2. Set a Regular Bedtime
Even if you struggle to fall asleep, setting a routine can help to train the brain to ultimately settle into a sleepy state when you crawl into bed at your predictable time. (19) The same goes for waking at a consistent time, since sleeping in or taking naps can also interfere with the ability to fall or stay asleep.
3. Quit Alcohol
While many like to have a drink as part of their evening relaxation routine, it turns out that alcohol in the evening or before bed can actually mess up the brain’s ability to relax and fall asleep, as well as disrupting natural production of melatonin. (20) If healthy sleep is eluding you, take a break from alcohol for a few weeks or a month to determine if it might be a key factor in your sleep issues.
4. Bright Light During the Day
Your body contains an internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. (21) Bright light exposure during the first part of the day can help to naturally regulate this and promote a desire to go to sleep at a normal time. This can be especially helpful for those who struggle to feel tired enough when it should be bedtime. It’s also helpful to avoid bright or blue lights in the evening hours because for sensitive individuals, this can lead to a confused body clock.
5. Keep It Cool
Sleep can be disrupted if the environment isn’t optimal, and an overly warm room can interfere with the ability to fall into a deep, restorative sleep. (22) While the ideal temperature might differ based on personal preferences and time of year, opting for a slight chill in the air, which requires blankets, will lead toward more comfortable sleep than a room which is too warm to want blankets.
6. Eat Sleep-Friendly Foods for Dinner
Certain foods can increase the desire to sleep, and these foods are best consumed for dinner when sleep quality is on your mind. Foods rich in tryptophan—the famed ingredient that causes Thanksgiving “turkey comas”—can actually lead to satisfying sleep. Tryptophan is naturally found in foods like eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, nuts, and seeds.
7. Skip the Sugar Bowl
While you’re focusing on foods that help to promote sleep, you’ll also want to avoid foods that disrupt sleep, and sugar is a major culprit. Not only can it make you hyper and cause the mind to race, but it can also mess with blood sugar and insulin levels. Insulin resistance and higher levels of insulin can contribute to certain sleep disruptions, so avoiding sugar before bed, and strictly limiting it for the rest of the day, can be essential for a normalized sleep pattern. (23)
While over-the-counter or supplement sleep aids may be problematic, there’s another nutrient that can have a profound impact on sleep quality and won’t cause you to become dependent: magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral that the body needs for numerous processes, including calming the nervous system and relaxing muscles. (24) Magnesium doesn’t have side effects when taken appropriately, although if you’re taking other medications, you should always ensure that there are no interactions and you should always get supplements approved by your practitioner.
For adults, the recommended limit of supplemental magnesium is 350 milligrams. (25) If you’re boosting magnesium to support healthier sleep, it can be taken before bed with water. Be sure to get supplement recommendations from your practitioner, as supplement quality varies dramatically by brand. There are various forms of magnesium, but magnesium citrate is superior for absorption. (26)
Sleep problems are common, whether they’re a seasonal part of life or a constant part of chronic health issues or other problems. Since our health depends on the ability to get restorative sleep, it’s essential to be able to find solutions that allow our bodies to rest. While this can sometimes be accomplished with simple lifestyle and dietary changes, other times it might require professional help. Ultimately, sleep is a priceless commodity, and it needs to be equally as valued as diet and exercise.