Get Enough Sleep
How Sleep Helps
Sleep may seem like a waste of time. You could instead be answering e-mail, doing the dishes, repairing the deck or decking the halls. But research shows that you're more likely to succeed at your tasks—and enjoy greater well-being—if you get some serious shuteye.
Of course, it's not easy to sleep when you're feeling overwhelmed. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they lose sleep because of stress. That's especially unfortunate because sleep combats some of the fallout of stress, and poor sleep has been linked to significant problems, including:
- greater risk of depression and anxiety
- increased risk of heart disease and cancer
- impaired memory
- reduced immune system functioning
- weight gain
- greater likelihood of accidents
Creating Good Nights
Experts suggest that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Everyone is different, though, and you may need more after a few days of burning the midnight (or 2 a.m.) oil.
To assess your sleep deficit, ask yourself:
- Am I often tired?
- Am I using caffeine to get through the day?
- Do I sleep well?
- Do I wake up feeling refreshed?
- Do I get drowsy while driving or watching TV?
To sleep longer—and better—consider these suggestions:
- Set a regular bedtime. Your body craves consistency, plus you're more likely to get enough sleep if you schedule rest like your other important tasks.
- De-caffeinate yourself. Drinking caffeine to stay awake during the day can keep you up at night. Try resisting the coffee and colas starting six to eight hours before bed.
- De-stress yourself. Relax by taking a hot bath, meditating or envisioning a soothing scene while lying in bed. Turn off daytime worries by finishing any next-day preparations about an hour before bed.
- Exercise. Working out can improve sleep in lots of ways, including by relieving muscle tension. Don't work out right before bed, though, since exercise may make you more alert. If you like, try gentle upper-body stretches to help transition into sleep.
- Make your bed a sleep haven. No paying bills or writing reports in bed. Also, if you can't fall asleep after 15 minutes you can try some soothing music, but if you remain alert experts recommend getting up until you feel more tired.
For additional sleep guidelines, see the National Sleep Foundation's website. (But no computer right before bedtime!)
If you're considering sleep medication, you can buy one of several over-the-counter products, which generally can be used safely for a few days. As for prescription medications, the National Sleep Foundation suggests a limit of four weeks—and simultaneously working on one's sleep habits. Never combine sleep medications with alcohol or other potentially sedating medicines, and be sure to allow at least 8 hours between taking a sleep medication and driving.
If you're wondering about the hormone melatonin, there is evidence of its usefulness in improving sleep and helping to regulate an off-kilter sleep cycle. Still, some experts urge caution, arguing that more research is needed to determine correct dosing and timing for taking a melatonin supplement.
If you're having serious sleep problems, see your doctor, especially if you have trouble more than three nights a week for a month. Your doctor can check whether your sleep issues are caused by some underlying health problem, like depression or a thyroid disorder, and can help with a treatment plan or referral to a sleep specialist. Also contact your doctor if you suspect a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, which involves snoring and gaps in breathing, or restless leg syndrome, which causes sudden urges to move your body, or if you are experiencing any unusual nighttime behaviors. It's also reasonable to see a health care professional if you still feel tired despite getting enough sleep.
If you want help learning to cope better with sleep problems, try to locate a therapist who offers cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia. This treatment works by changing sleep-related beliefs and behaviors. You might, for example, rethink your notion that the whole night is ruined if you're not asleep by 10. A sleep clinic may be able to help you locate such a therapist.
Reviewed by Helene Emsellem, MD, associate clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center and author of Snooze or Lose: 10 ‘No-War' Ways to Improve Your Teen's Sleep Habits.