If people had an option to lower the risk of obesity, depression, hypertension, accidental death, and memory loss disorders without having to pop a pill, hit the gym or eat a leaf of kale, would they take it?

Unfortunately, for far too many, the answer is no. Between 50 million and 70 million people in the United States suffer from poor sleep habits that sap alertness today and could contribute to myriad chronic illnesses tomorrow.

“Insufficient sleep is a public health problem,” warns the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cites the greater risk of car and workplace accidents as well as the long-term complications posed by failing to get a good night’s sleep.

Sufficient rest is one of the Healthy Brains Initiative’s Six Pillars of Brain Health, and can be a gateway to other healthy habits.

“A person getting enough sleep is more likely to have the energy to be active and engaged, and make wise diet and other lifestyle choices,” said Dr. Kate Zhong, Senior Director of Clinical Research and Development for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

“We find sleep deprivation particularly prevalent among caregivers for those suffering memory loss and other long-term maladies,” Dr. Zhong said, “and we encourage them to be pro-active when it comes to making sure they are well rested.”

From the beginning of human history until the living memory of some of us, night brought an impenetrable darkness that signaled the body that it was time to rest. Today’s technology gives us an unending stream of information and entertainment delivered through the screens of cellphones, computers, and TVs.

Research has indicated that high exposure to artificial light disrupts the circadian rhythm that acts as the body’s sleep clock and that heavy users of cellphones get less sleep overall and less restful deep sleep.

Countering those effects need not require a return to candlesticks and sleeping caps, but it does take understanding about today’s challenges and the way medical science suggests addressing them.

In the article “Lifestyle And Behavioral Treatments For Sleep Disorders,” the Cleveland Clinic provides an overview of the approaches to getting enough sleep. Among its recommendations:

Relaxation Training: Progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing techniques can, over time, help some people deal with sleep disorders.

Cognitive Therapy: Understanding the thought processes and behaviors that often go hand in hand with insomnia can be key to addressing them.

Sleep Hygiene: Habits and environment play key roles in determining the quality of a night’s sleep.

You know that sleep is vital to your physical and mental health. But, how can you tell whether you’re truly sleeping well? Especially if you work shifts, your sleep probably does not look exactly like other peoples’ sleep. It can be hard to measure your sleep patterns against those of the people around you. 

On average, adults should optimally receive between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, but those needs vary individually. For example, some people feel best with eight consecutive hours of sleep, while others do well with six to seven hours at night and daytime napping. Some people feel okay when their sleep schedule changes, while others feel very affected by a new schedule or even one night of insufficient sleep. 

Here are some statements about your sleep. If these apply to you, it’s a good sign that your sleep is on track. If you’re a shift worker and you don’t agree with many of these, it could mean that you need to make changes in your behaviors and routines to improve your sleep.

  • You fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of lying down to sleep.
  • You regularly sleep a total of seven to nine hours in a 24-hour period.
  • While in your bed, your sleep is continuous—you don’t have long periods of lying awake when you wish to be sleeping.
  • You wake up feeling refreshed, as if you’ve “filled the tank.”
  • You feel alert and are able to be fully productive throughout the waking hours (note, it’s natural for people to feel a dip in alertness during waking hours, but with healthy sleep, alertness returns).
  • Your partner or family members do not notice any disturbing or out of the ordinary behavior from you while you sleep, such as snoring, pauses in breathing, restlessness, or otherwise nighttime behaviors.

Shift workers who try to sleep during the day often wake up after fewer than seven to nine hours, because of the alerting signals coming from their circadian system. This does not mean they don’t need seven to eight hours of sleep per day—it just means it’s harder to sleep during the day. Over time, this can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.

Sleep plays an essential role in your health and wellbeing throughout your life. Getting enough good quality sleep has many benefits, including protecting your physical and mental health, quality of life and personal safety.

Key points

When you sleep, important physical and mental processes are carried out.

Regular, good quality sleep is important for brain functioning, emotional wellbeing, physical health, daytime performance and personal safety.

Research suggests that adults need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night to be well rested.

Not getting enough sleep is common and can have serious impacts on your health and wellbeing.

To restore your sleep balance, you need at least two nights in a row of unrestricted good quality sleep.

What happens when we sleep?

When we sleep, our bodies rest – conserving energy and decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and body temperature. At the same time, our brains remain active – laying down memory, restoring daytime mental functioning and carrying out processes that lead to physical growth.

There are five stages of sleep, progressing from stage 1 (light sleep) through stages 3 and 4 (deep sleep) to stage 5 known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Read about what happens during these different stages of sleep

Sleep is thought to play an important role in the following processes:

woman asleep in bed

Controlling your body temperature and energy use (metabolism). 

Keeping your immune system working.

Controlling your brain functioning and restoring your memory.

Keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy.

Repairing tissues and stimulating growth in children (growth hormone released during sleep is responsible for both).

Regulating your appetite and weight and controlling your blood glucose levels.

If you aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis, these processes are interrupted and your risk of developing long-term health problems increases.

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