America is a sleep-deprived nation, with more than one third of adults getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night. While many people blow off sleep as a luxury, over the long term, lack of shut-eye can increase your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, and even death.
To help millions of Americans sleep more soundly, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Sleep Research Society (SRS) are working together to convince people that sleep is just as important for a healthy lifestyle as good nutrition and regular exercise.
Key to this “Sleep Well, Be Well” campaign is convincing people that prioritizing sleep doesn’t equate to laziness or lack of motivation. Getting a good night’s sleep has a positive effect on the rest of your day.
“We often find that once we convince people to prioritize sleep in their life, to allow enough time for them to get adequate sleep, that they do feel better during the day—they’re more productive, they think more clearly, and they realize the value of sleep," said Dr. Nathaniel Watson, a board-certified neurologist and sleep specialist and a member of the AASM.
Three Components of Healthy Sleep
When Watson refers to getting adequate sleep, he's talking about three main factors.
The first is sleep duration—not how much time you spend in bed, but for how long you actually sleep.
“That’s going to be somewhat individualized,” said Watson. “Right now our belief is that a normal amount of sleep is from seven to nine hours per night, or per 24-hour period.”
Everyone has different needs, which are partly determined by their genes. To find your ideal sleep duration, Watson recommends spending two to three weeks sleeping as much as your body needs to by going to bed as soon as you are tired and waking up naturally in the morning.
“At the end of that two- or three-week period of time,” said Watson, “they should assess the amount of time that they’re sleeping, and that would be a reasonable approximation of how much sleep that person needs.”
The second key to good sleep is timing. Your body’s circadian rhythm—its internal clock—is set by the cycle of light and darkness in the natural world. To help you fall asleep, your body secretes the hormone melatonin, which is linked to darkness. So, ideally, it’s best to sleep when it’s dark, although people who work late shifts can’t always do so.
“That can be a challenge for some people,” Watson said, “but we do want to get people to understand and to acknowledge that timing is important. And if you disrupt the timing, that does have consequences for sleep health.”
Finally, healthy sleep means dealing with any health issues that interfere with sleep—such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or other sleep disorders.
“If a person feels that they may have a sleep disorder—let’s say that they’re giving themselves enough time to sleep and they’re sleeping at the proper time but they’re still fatigued and sleepy, or they’re having insomnia problems,” said Watson, “they should go see a board-certified sleep medicine physician.”
6 Tips for Healthier Sleep
While many people turn to caffeine after a night spent tossing and turning, there’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep.
“You just can’t cheat it,” Watson said. “There’s no pill, there’s nothing that you can take to try to overcome, or to try to replace it.”
To help you stop fighting and start sleeping, Watson offers these tips:
1. Keep a Regular Sleep Routine
You can help sleep along by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, as well as by sticking to your pre-bed routine so that your body knows that sleep is coming.
2. Prepare a Sleep-Friendly Environment
Cool, dark, and quiet are essential. Turn out the lights or use light-blocking curtains or shades. If you live in a noisy environment, white noise machines or ear plugs may block out some of the sounds.
3. Avoid Caffeine After 2:00 p.m.
If you must drink caffeine, avoid it after two in the afternoon, because it can increase your chances of insomnia later that night.
4. Don't Exercise Right Before Bed
Regular exercise can help you sleep more soundly, but for some people, it can be disruptive if it's done right before going to bed.
5. Skip the Pre-Bed Cocktail
Alcohol may make you drowsy, but it can disturb your sleep later as the alcohol wears off.
6. Create a Tech-Free Zone
Cell phones, computers, and tablets can all disrupt sleep because their ever-glowing lights—especially those in the blue wavelengths—can throw off your circadian rhythm by mimicking daylight.