Few things feel as good as getting a full night’s sleep. But if you’re like lots of adults, you’re probably not getting enough good sleep to feel refreshed and energized throughout the day. Missing a few nights of sleep here and there isn’t avoidable, but the less you sleep, the more problematic it becomes. Because life gets busy, you may be tempted to shortchange yourself on sleep to deal with work or household tasks, or just to have a bit more time to spend with friends or watch the ending of an exciting show you’ve been streaming. Whether you’re missing out on sleep due to choice or insomnia, don’t dismiss sleep deprivation as a minor inconvenience.
Studies continue to show that sleep deprivation has negative effects on many aspects of your life, including general health, longevity and cognitive performance. Driving when sleep deprived, for instance, can be as harmful as driving drunk. Let’s talk about how sleep affects your well-being and how to improve the quality of your sleep cycle.
Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Snapping at your spouse and dragging your feet at work are mild aftereffects of poor sleep, but researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest that there are more serious consequences to missing out on regular, high-quality sleep. These include:
- Heart disease
- Mood disorders
- Weakened immune system
- Shorter life expectancy.
A decade ago, research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine indicated that insufficient sleep can hurt students’ grades and increase the odds of their having behavioral and emotional problems. In 2016, health officials at BYU Student Health Clinic urged students to set a schedule for sleep for the same reason. Lack of consistent sleep creates serious problems, which some believe could lead to long-term issues, such as underlying permanent brain damage. What these and other studies suggest is that getting the right amount and right kind of sleep can make a major difference in your life.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Cats and newborn humans may require 16 hours of sleep a day, but as we get older and start going to school and getting jobs, we luckily require far fewer sleep hours. There’s some individual variation when it comes to getting a set number of hours each day, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the most important factor determining the amount of sleep you will need is your age:
- Toddlers (1 to 2): 10 to 12 hours of nightly sleep plus naps
- Young children (3 to 5): 10 to 13 hours total
- Prepubescent children (6 to 13): 9 to 11 hours total
- Teenagers (14 to 17): 8 to 10 hours total
- Adults (18 and over): 7 to 9 hours total
As you get older, your sleep needs will change somewhat. Older adults need as much sleep as younger ones, but older people sleep more lightly and in shorter stretches. If you’re pregnant, sick or have certain medical conditions, you may also need more sleep than the guidelines suggest.
The quality of the sleep you get is just as important as the quantity. There are actually two different types of sleep: rapid-eye movement (REM) and non-REM. You cycle through these stages several times during a night, starting with very light non-REM sleep that gradually deepens, moving into a 10-minute cycle of REM sleep after about 90 minutes. Because your body needs these different types of sleep to happen in a continuous pattern, it’s important to get uninterrupted sleep.
If you take eight hours’ worth of short naps in a day, you may get the correct total amount of sleep, but you also may be missing out on REM sleep, which is necessary for processing emotions and memories. REM sleep deprivation can also lead to psychological disturbances and memory formation impairments. Just as your physical health depends on getting an adequate total amount of sleep, some elements of your mental health depend on getting quality sleep.
How to Sleep Better
Researchers use the phrase “sleep hygiene” to describe habits, routines and practices that will help you get high-quality sleep. Many of them involve simple lifestyle adjustments, such as:
- Consistent bedtimes
- Limited caffeine intake
- Intentional quiet time
- Low or no bedroom light
- Lighter dinners
Even a light workout, such as taking a 15-minute walk, can improve your quality of sleep. Don’t work out just before you go to bed, though. Exercising in the morning or early afternoon is best for inducing sleep in the evening. Set a schedule for your sleep, particularly when you’ll be hitting the hay at night. Consistent bedtimes – especially those before 11 p.m. – produce better sleep.
While you’re prepping for bed, limit light, noise and active activities. Light and sound can interrupt your sleep even if you’re used to it. The blue light that emanates from electronics is especially bad for getting proper rest, so turn off or cover your devices to enhance your slumber. Invest in a white noise machine if you can’t drown out peripheral sounds, and consider upgrading your blinds to blackout curtains to create a darker, cooler space for sleeping.
Think ahead for bed, too. Limit caffeine intake to the early part of your day, and don’t drink or eat anything stimulating within six hours of when you plan to go to sleep. Trade your afternoon cup of joe for a soothing cup of herbal tea. And while you’re preparing your stomach for bed, note that a heavy meal right before you snooze is a surefire way to get poor sleep, not to mention indigestion. Stick with lighter meals if you have to eat late.
Sleep Better to Live Better
Sleep isn’t a luxury and time spent sleeping isn’t wasted. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your sleep. Staying up late and depriving yourself of sleep to catch up on work or studying doesn’t get you ahead. Instead, it reduces your performance and productivity. On the other hand, if you are well-rested, you will be healthier, happier and more productive – and you might just live a little longer, too.