A good night’s sleep might seem like a luxury, but rest is a vital part of our overall health. Unfortunately, far too many Americans neglect their sleep needs.
In fact, about one-third of Americans struggle with sleep deprivation. That might not sound like a big deal, but a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that even one night of lost sleep increases the production of a protein in the brain called beta-amyloid, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
While most people don’t connect a lack of sleep to such alarming consequences, everyone knows what it’s like to feel exhausted. Poor sleep habits create stress in our bodies and lead to fatigue, diminished concentration, slow reaction times, and increased irritability. Exhaustion also hurts the economy in a big way, contributing to spiraling healthcare costs and decreased work productivity.
The typical American sleeps only seven hours per day — about two hours less than a century ago. Adults who sleep fewer than seven hours, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, aren’t allowing their bodies and minds to recover adequately.
In a society that rewards us for doing more (and more), it’s tough to dedicate time to what essentially feels like “doing nothing.”
A True Race to the Bottom
It’s not all your fault, insomniacs; many of you are simply products of the age. Getting eight solid hours of sleep is harder than it used to be, largely thanks to our easy access to distractions like TVs, computers, and smartphones.
These instruments provide entertainment value, and it’s admittedly pretty amazing to be able to binge-watch every season of “Breaking Bad” whenever and wherever we choose. But at the same time, this incredible technology carries consequences.
Devices designed to save time and labor often have the opposite effect because they end up creating more pressure to work. People have become tethered to their jobs to the point that they complete tasks and respond to emails around the clock. Society rewards this unhealthy behavior, making it even harder to break bad sleep habits.
It’s as though we’re all contestants on a dreadful reality TV show where the object is to see how much we can endure by depriving ourselves of sleep. Sleep loss affects all cognitive functions, and there are severe consequences for challenging our natural circadian rhythms.
Taking Charge of Our Sleep Habits
Stop viewing sleep as wasted time, and start viewing it as an activity that enhances the rest of your life. As with most healthy interests, developing healthy sleep habits is a matter of practice and discipline. It takes time. Start by getting to the bottom of why your sleep habits aren’t effective. Here’s how:
- Empty your mind by journaling.
Take a few minutes each day to jot down what’s on your mind. This reduces the clutter in your brain, sorts out your thoughts, and prioritizes the “stuff” that really needs to be done. One effective way to approach journaling is by compiling a daily to-do list. It can be as simple or as involved as you want, but don’t feel like you need to overthink the process — just get your thoughts on paper and move on.The simple process of making a list becomes more important than following it, in fact. Your ultimate goal should be feeling organized in your mind. Journaling improves your memory, exercises your critical thinking skills, helps you to rank priorities, minimizes distractions, and motivates you to act.
- Identify behaviors that need changing.
Take stock of potential stressors that might disrupt your sleep by tracking your behavior for a few days or weeks. How do you treat your body and mind? Work can be a huge stressor. Eating or drinking certain items close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Are you exercising enough? At all?It might be unreasonable to live without electronic devices, but using them too close to bedtime discourages sleep and encourages your brain to keep pushing forward. Even something as simple as the light of a TV, computer monitor, or smartphone can hinder your slumber. Turn out the lights — the party’s over — and force yourself to go to bed.
- Pinpoint changes and make them happen.
Replace your evening coffee or nightly beer with an afternoon walk. Not only is getting outside and walking a healthy activity, but consuming caffeine or drinking alcohol within four hours of bedtime can also disrupt your sleep. Binge drinking, for instance, alters your melatonin levels, which regulates all parts of sleep. Late-night snacks are fine, but experts recommend not eating heavy meals within two hours of bedtime.Figure out when you need to get up for work, and then count backward at least seven hours — eight would be ideal — and set your bedtime. Set a deadline for checking email or completing work that isn’t too close to your new bedtime. Put down the smartphone and laptop entirely, and try reading a book instead. The act of reading can lower your heart rate, which helps to reduce stress more effectively than listening to music.
- Recharge your batteries with a power nap (or workout).
Making up for sleep lost at night by taking a nap during the day seems like an obvious solution that’s just yawning out at us. Napping for 20-30 minutes yields scientifically measurable benefits and can help you feel restored. Anything longer than that, and you risk making yourself groggier.If you can’t manage to swing a nap during the day, using that time to exercise might perform necessary body maintenance in a different way. Even 10 minutes of aerobic cycling or walking, if performed regularly, can make it easier to fall asleep later in the day.
While I won’t pretend that these four suggestions are the cure-all for your sleep woes, any of these changes can ease your stress levels. And less stress leads to more sleep and better overall health. Clear your mind, take stock of bad habits, start creating healthier alternatives, and learn to enjoy the beauty of a full night’s sleep.
Dave Pributsky is the head of marketing strategy and business development at 2920 Sleep. This customer-centric online retailer provides consumers with high-quality products that improve sleep quality and overall health with minimal environmental impact. Dave founded 2920 Sleep with his business partner, Karim O’Driscoll, as a quality-driven company dedicated to providing healthier lifestyles through sleep. Dave has experience leading business and digital strategy with consumer brands such as TrueCar, USAA, AAA, American Express, and Consumer Reports.
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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.