Sleep is one of the more mysterious of human needs. We know it’s important, and we have some idea of what happens during sleep, but researchers are just now starting to understand what happens as we move through sleep stages.
On average, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. While we sleep, our bodies are in repair mode fixing damaged cells, releasing hormones for growth and repair, and using the immune system to fight inflammation. Our brains process info from the day, helping to create memories, and clear out any waste to keep us thinking clearly.
When you have a couple nights of bad sleep, the body’s production of a stress hormone called cortisol increases. This increase in cortisol can cause higher blood sugar levels in the morning, even in the absence of diabetes. The lack of sleep also causes carb-cravings as the tired body searches for quick energy. Higher morning blood sugar coupled with quick carb cravings can send us on an energy roller coaster throughout the day, relying on caffeine and sugar to keep from crashing. If we aren’t careful, this cycle can cause poor sleep again. Sound familiar?
If poor sleep becomes a chronic problem (over weeks, months, or even years), you accumulate what experts call “sleep debt.” As sleep debt increases, the risk of developing high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity also increase since your body can’t do its necessary rest and repair processes.
The good news is you can “pay down” your sleep debt and reverse potentially harmful health effects. A couple of all-nighters can be fixed with a few extra hours of sleep, but if you have a history of disrupted or too short sleep, it may take longer for your sleep debt to get repaid.
When you get good sleep, your blood sugar levels are better regulated, reducing the risk of diabetes or diabetes complications . Your blood pressure stays in check, lowering the chances of heart problems. Plus, it helps your heart recover and stay strong. But that’s not all – quality sleep also aids in weight management by keeping your hunger hormones in check, so you’re less likely to reach for those unhealthy snacks. In a nutshell, a good night’s sleep is the foundation for a healthier, happier you.
Note: If you feel like you have symptoms of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or insomnia, please reach out to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
Bedroom temperatures that are too warm can interfere with the body’s natural set point and affect the quality of REM sleep, needed for learning and memory. Researchers believe that the ideal sleeping temperature is around 65° F (18° C). Turn down the heater at night in the wintertime and cozy up with a warm blanket, instead.
Having a hot bath or shower one to two hours before bed can help you fall asleep more quickly and improve your sleep quality. The hot water helps improve your circulation from your body core, which in turn helps with the body temperature drop needed for optimal sleep. Studies found that 10 minutes in a warm bath or shower was all that was needed for the sleep benefits.
It seems counterintuitive since alcohol can make you feel tired (and even make you fall asleep more quickly), but it can actually disrupt sleep. Having alcohol in your system can keep you in lighter stages of sleep, which means you’ll get less of the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage and deep sleep stage, which is when we get our most restorative sleep. If you find yourself knocking back a couple drinks before bed, try to go a few days without and see if you feel more rested in the morning.
If you’re able, turn off all electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed. Blue light emitted by screens suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, making it difficult to fall asleep. Many phones also have a dim light setting that can be scheduled for evening hours.
Similar to how you often get hungry at the same time each day, your body likes to go to sleep and wake up around the same time. Sticking to a bedtime (and waketime) schedule, even on the weekends, helps your body’s internal clock establish a natural sleep-wake cycle.
How many more minutes of sleep do you need to reach at least 7 hours, or your ideal amount? For example, let’s say you only get 6 hours of sleep each night so you need to add on 60 minutes to reach 7 hours. It may seem daunting to try and add in an extra hour every day. Instead, back up your current bedtime by 10 minutes tonight, and go to bed at this new time every day for a week. Continue to back up your bedtime by an additional 10 minutes each week for 6 weeks, and you’ll reach your ideal sleeping amount.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can reduce both the quantity and quality of sleep. Caffeine can circulate in the body anywhere from 8-12 hours after ingesting it, so have your last cup o’ joe or caffeinated tea by early afternoon at the latest.
A calming bedtime ritual such as brushing your teeth and washing your face, dimming the lights, reading a book, doing bedtime yoga, or having a soothing cup of chamomile tea can help signal to your body that it’s time for sleep. Try to start this ritual 30 – 60 minutes before you’re scheduled to go to bed. Set a timer on your phone or watch if you need a reminder.
as of September 2023. Kelsea is a Registered Dietitian with her Masters degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University.
Always be sure to reach out to your healthcare team when making changes to your diet or lifestyle. There are certain conditions and medications that need to be considered.