When life gets busy, it is often tempting to skip sleep to get more done during the day. If you find yourself not getting enough sleep every day, you are not alone. Did you know more than 35 percent of adults report getting fewer than seven hours of sleep regularly? This pattern of insufficient sleep can eventually lead to a more severe sleep disorder — a condition that affects an estimated 50 to 70 million American adults.
However, getting enough sleep is as essential to good health as exercising and eating well. By skipping sleep, you may sabotage your productivity during the day and find yourself feeling groggy and tired often. Getting a good night’s sleep can improve your ability to tackle tasks during the day, as well as benefit your overall physical and mental health.
What Is Sleep?
Sleep is a vital process your body requires to rest and refresh each night. Although we still haven’t determined the exact biological purpose of sleep, we know it is essential to our health and well-being. While you are asleep, your body can rebuild your muscles, process emotions, create memories and perform many other critical functions.
Your circadian rhythms and homeostasis are responsible for regulating your sleep patterns — when you fall asleep and when you wake up. Circadian rhythms cause you to feel tired at the end of the day and help you wake up in the morning without an alarm. Homeostasis reminds your body of the need for sleep by producing a homeostatic sleep drive at regular intervals. The longer you stay awake, the stronger your homeostatic sleep drive becomes. These processes are part of the reason you sleep more deeply if you have been sleep-deprived for a long time.
Your body cycles through four different stages of sleep each night. Each stage of sleep is either rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or non-REM sleep. These are the four stages of the sleep cycle.
- Stage 1 non-REM sleep: In this short stage — lasting only several minutes — your body transitions into sleep. Your breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow and your muscles relax.
- Stage 2 non-REM sleep: In this period of light sleep, your breathing and heart rate continue to slow. Your brain activity also slows further, but with bursts of activity. Your body temperature also drops during Stage 2 sleep.
- Stage 3 non-REM sleep: In this stage of deep sleep, your heart rate and breathing are at their slowest during the sleep cycle and your muscles are entirely relaxed. Stage 3 sleep is the stage that makes you feel rested and refreshed in the morning.
- REM sleep: In the fourth stage of sleep — REM sleep — your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and brain activity all increase. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep.
In a single night of sleep, your body goes through these stages several times. Your body requires both non-REM and REM sleep stages to repair itself and rest during sleep.
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Reasons Why Sleep Is Important
During sleep, your body performs many functions that restore and repair your cells, tissues and body systems. Sleep affects nearly every part of your body, including your heart, lungs, brain, immune system and metabolism. While you are sleeping, your brain creates pathways for learning and solidifies memories. Sleep also improves your ability to focus when you are awake and helps you feel refreshed. Here are a few essential functions your body performs during sleep:
- Rebuilds muscle tissues
- Removes harmful plaque and toxins from your brain
- Processes emotions and experiences from the previous day
- Commits experiences and feelings to memory
- Regulates hormones that control appetite and metabolism
- Controls your immune system
Having a good night’s sleep allows your body to care for itself and to operate correctly the next day. Getting regular sleep also helps regulate your circadian rhythms, creating a positive cycle of improved sleep.
What Is a “Good Night’s Sleep?”
Many people assume a good night’s sleep means getting enough hours of sleep each night. However, getting a good night’s sleep depends on both the duration and the quality of your sleep. Understanding a good night’s sleep is a crucial component of getting better rest and improving your overall health. Several factors influence sleep quality, including:
- How long it takes you to fall asleep
- How many times you wake up during the night
- How much time you spend in each stage of sleep
- If you wake up early and cannot fall back asleep
- If you feel well-rested the next day
When you have a good night’s sleep, you should be able to fall asleep fairly quickly and enter Stage 2 non-REM sleep within several minutes. Your body cycles through Stage 2, Stage 3 and REM sleep throughout the night without waking. After a night of quality sleep, your body wakes up naturally at a regular time, and you should feel well-rested. A good night’s sleep will leave you feeling wide awake in the morning, and you will not feel sleepy during the day.
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How Much Sleep Do You Need?
The second factor that impacts your ability to get a good night’s sleep is how long you sleep each night. While the “right” amount of sleep for each person varies, the National Sleep Association recommends ranges of optimal sleep duration for different age groups.
- Newborns aged 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours
- Infants aged 4 to 11 months: 12 to 15 hours
- Toddlers aged 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours
- Preschoolers aged 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours
- Children aged 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours
- Teenagers aged 14 to 17 years: 8 to 10 hours
- Adults aged 18 to 64 years: 7 to 9 hours
- Adults over 65 years old: 7 to 8 hours
Regularly getting enough sleep helps you feel rested the next day. When your body gets in a healthy sleep pattern, you may also be able to fall asleep more easily each night.
Importance of Sleep for the Body
Getting the right amount of good-quality sleep has many physical benefits, as your body can perform restorative and regulatory functions while you sleep. Here are a few tangible benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.
1. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Poor sleep habits go hand-in-hand with weight gain and high body mass index (BMI). Not getting enough sleep has been shown to increase the risk of obesity in both children and adults. Short sleep duration also results in an imbalance in the hormones that regulate appetite — producing higher levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and lower levels of leptin, which suppresses appetite. These factors are likely to make people eat more, resulting in weight gain and higher BMI.
By getting an appropriate duration of sleep every night, you can reduce your risk of obesity. When your body can adequately regulate your appetite, you may also have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight.
2. Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
The duration and quality of sleep a person gets can influence their risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease. A review of 15 studies revealed people who regularly get fewer than seven hours of sleep have a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who typically get more than eight hours of sleep also have an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and total cardiovascular disease.
By getting the right amount of sleep — not too little or too much — you can reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke.
3. Improve Immune Function
During sleep, your body produces and regulates cells that are essential to proper immune function. When you do not get enough sleep, your body cannot produce enough of these cells, and they may also be less active, which results in a weakened immune response and makes you more susceptible to illness. One study revealed even partial sleep deprivation results in reduced natural immune response the next day.
By regularly having a good night’s sleep, you can improve your body’s immune response and enjoy overall better health.
4. Boost Athletic Performance
Sleep has been shown to have numerous benefits for athletic performance and competitive success. Getting quality sleep can improve your endurance, boost your accuracy, improve your reaction time and increase your speed and power. Also, athletes who get good sleep may have a lower risk of illness and injury. Healthy athletes can attend more training sessions, which may result in better overall performance.
Importance of Sleep for the Mind
Good sleep also provides time for your mind to process the previous day and commit your experiences to memory. A good night’s sleep can improve your cognitive functioning the next day and increase your productivity, focus, concentration and more. Here are a few mental benefits of sleep.
1. Boost Concentration and Productivity
After a night of poor sleep, you are more likely to experience disrupted focus and an inability pay attention the next day. Sleep deprivation can prevent you from remembering things you previously learned and make it more difficult for your brain to correctly process information. This mental fatigue can negatively impact decision-making and overall performance.
However, a good night’s sleep primes your brain for improved concentration and focus, and equips you better to recall facts and make fewer mistakes. This improved focus can boost your productivity at work and help you make better decisions.
2. Improve Problem-Solving
Sleep may play a role in our ability to problem-solve by stimulating the flexible cognitive processes in the brain. These processes — which link closely with creativity and abstract reasoning — are active during REM sleep. The brain may be more responsive to flexible cognitive processes during REM sleep, allowing you to solve problems that you may not be able to during waking hours. Sleep may also be particularly useful for solving difficult problems.
3. Enhance Memory
Sleep has been shown to play a vital role in memory consolidation, improving our ability to remember fact-based information, as well as how to perform tasks. While there is not a scientific consensus about how sleep helps us form memories, it is likely REM sleep serves a crucial function. For other types of memory, such as learning a motor skill, lighter stages of sleep may be more beneficial. By getting enough sleep and allowing your body to experience each stage of sleep, you can enhance all types of memory.
4. Improve Social Interactions
A good night of sleep can boost your mood and make you feel more sociable the next day. Also, sleep may also improve your ability to interact well with other people. When you do not get enough sleep, it can impair your ability to judge facial expressions and emotions. If you cannot correctly recognize social cues, you may have difficulty communicating well with friends or co-workers. Getting a good night’s sleep makes it easier for you to interpret social signals and have more rewarding social interactions.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
If you struggle to fall asleep or get a good night’s sleep, consider changing your lifestyle or daily habits to improve sleep quality and duration. Here are 10 ways to get a better night’s sleep.
1. Follow a Regular Sleep Schedule
One of the best ways to get better sleep is to establish a sleep schedule. When you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, you reinforce and strengthen your circadian rhythm and body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Your homeostatic sleep drive will help you fall asleep more readily, and your circadian rhythm will help you wake up naturally and feeling refreshed. Creating a regular sleep schedule can significantly improve your long-term sleep quality.
2. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
If you have difficulty falling asleep at night, developing a calming routine before bed can help. You may choose to listen to relaxing music, read a book or take a bath. If you experience a lot of stress during the day, take time at night to resolve your concerns and put your stress aside. Visualizing the upcoming day or writing down your worries can also help reduce anxiety before bed. If you still can’t to fall asleep after about 20 minutes in bed, get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired enough to fall asleep.
3. Create a Comfortable Environment for Sleep
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep can sometimes result from a noisy, bright or uncomfortable sleep environment. Create a bedroom environment that is dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature. Some people may also benefit from rearranging the furniture in their room and removing or covering any artificial lights, such as digital alarm clocks or other electronics.
4. Enjoy More Bright Light During the Day
Exposure to natural light or bright light during the daytime can reinforce your natural circadian rhythm. Sunlight exposure can also boost your energy and activity during the day, making you more tired around bedtime. If you cannot spend time outdoors during the day, consider using artificial bright lights in your office or workspace.
5. Reduce Caffeine, Alcohol and Nicotine Consumption
Consuming caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can impact your sleep quality and duration. Although alcohol may help you fall asleep more quickly, it often leads to restless sleep and may cause you to wake up several times throughout the night. Because their stimulating effects can take several hours to wear off, caffeine and nicotine can disrupt your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Avoid consuming caffeine within six hours of going to sleep so you can fall asleep more easily and enjoy better quality sleep.
6. Avoid Food Late at Night
Eating late at night can impact your body’s ability to fall asleep and may cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. In contrast, going to bed hungry can also lead to poor-quality sleep. Aim to go to bed comfortably full, without eating too close to bedtime.
7. Put Electronics Away Before Bed
Blue light exposure before bedtime can negatively impact your ability to fall asleep. Avoid watching television or using your cell phone, tablet or computer close to bedtime. You may also choose to dim bright lights in your home to help you relax before heading to bed.
8. Take Short Naps During the Day
For some people, taking a nap in the afternoon can help them feel more productive and focused during the day. Naps can also improve your learning ability and make you feel more awake. However, a nap longer than half an hour can adversely affect sleep quality. Try to take only short naps — between 10 and 30 minutes — to enjoy the most significant benefits. Also, avoid napping too late in the evening.
9. Exercise More
Being more active during the day can help prepare you for a good night’s sleep. When you use your energy during the day, you will naturally be more tired around bedtime. Your body will sleep more soundly and be able to rebuild your muscles during the night. For the most benefit, exercise three hours or more before bedtime, as being active too close to bedtime can disrupt your ability to fall asleep.
10. Take a Melatonin Supplement
If you often struggle to fall asleep, consider taking a melatonin supplement before bed. Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to signal to your brain that it is time for sleep. Melatonin supplements can help you fall asleep more easily if you do not feel tired at bedtime.
About Sleep Medicine
Getting a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of living a healthy life. But that’s a problem for millions of Americans dealing with sleep deprivation. The UPMC Sleep Medicine Center diagnoses and treats numerous sleep conditions or disorders. We also provide help to people suffering from lack of sleep because of other health problems. We recognize a lack of sleep can cause problems during other times of the day, including alertness, memory, and health immunity. We hold sleep studies and lead clinical trials, all in the name of helping you sleep.