Understanding healthy sleep
In today’s fast-paced world, a good night’s sleep has become something of an indulgence. It’s fallen down our list of priorities behind work, chores, social time, and entertainment.
However, sleep shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s as important to your physical and mental health as food and water.
The body’s need for sleep is a relatively new research field. Scientists are looking into what happens to the body during sleep and why the process itself is so essential. We do know that sleep is necessary to:
- maintain critical body functions
- restore energy
- repair muscle tissue
- allow the brain to process new information
We also know what happens when the body doesn’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause a range of mental and physical problems, including impairing your ability to:
- think clearly
- control emotions
This can result in serious problems in the workplace and at home.
Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. It can also affect your immune system, reducing your body’s ability to fight off infections and disease.
How much sleep do you need?
Our sleep habits — and sleep needs — change as we age.
According to recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation, you should aim to get the amounts of sleep listed below:
65 and up
7 to 8 hours
18 to 64 years old
7 to 9 hours
14 to 17 years old
8 to 10 hours
6 to 13 years old
9 to 11 hours
Younger children have even greater sleep needs. Many kids will reach their sleep goals with the help of naps.
3 to 5 years old
10 to 13 hours
1 to 2 years old
11 to 14 hours
4 to 11 months old
12 to 15 hours
0 to 3 months old
14 to 17 hours
Certain factors influence how much sleep you’ll need. Genetics can determine how long you sleep. Your genes can also play a role in how well you respond to sleep deprivation.
Likewise, the quality of sleep you get when you’re catching Zzz’s is a factor in how much sleep you ultimately need each night. People who get good quality sleep without waking up may need a little less sleep than people who frequently wake up or have trouble staying asleep.
Each person has unique sleep needs.
Sleep tips and tricks
Healthy sleep may come down to tricking your body (and your brain) into having better, longer, and more restorative downtime. Here are a few ideas for boosting sleep quality and sleep duration:
Establish a sleep routine
Having a regular bedtime and sticking to it can train your body to get better sleep. Stick to a schedule even on weekends, holidays, and vacations.
Kick Fido out of the room
You may adore sleeping with your fluffy family members, but research shows pet owners who let their animals sleep with them have more sleep disruption and get lower quality sleep.
Cut out caffeine
Even if you only drink it during the day, the stimulant may keep you from getting shut-eye at night.
Don’t consume foods or beverages that contain caffeine any later than mid-afternoon. That includes:
- soft drinks
Put down your phone
Vow to put away any and all electronics at least one hour before bed. The bright lights can stimulate your brain, which may make sleep more difficult.
Say no to a nightcap
If you sip on wine while watching TV, it’s time to break the habit. That’s because alcohol interferes with your brainwaves and natural sleep patterns.
Even if you sleep through the night, you won’t wake up feeling rested.
The bottom line
Good sleep is about establishing good habits.
Sleep disorders are conditions that prevent you from sleeping well on a regular basis. Occasional sleep disturbances such as jet lag, stress, and a busy schedule may interfere with your sleep. However, if your sleep is disturbed routinely, it may be a sign of a sleep disorder.
There are several common sleep disorders:
- Insomnia is a condition marked by trouble falling asleep, trouble remaining asleep, or both.
- Sleep apnea is a sleep disturbance that occurs when your airway gets blocked repeatedly while you sleep.
- Narcolepsy involves daytime “sleep attacks,” which are characterized by suddenly feeling very sleepy or falling asleep without warning.
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a sensation that you need to move your legs constantly, even when asleep.
- Parasomnias are abnormal behaviors or movements during sleep, such as nightmares and sleepwalking.
Sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity.
Many people with sleep disorders sleep for an adequate amount of time but don’t reach a deep enough stage of sleep to feel well-rested and refreshed in the morning. Waking up frequently in the night can also prevent you from reaching the critical stages of sleep.
Sleep disorders may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Read about how these disorders are diagnosed and treated.
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder. It occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax and then narrow or close the airway. With the tissue blocking the air passage, you can’t get air in and air can’t get out.
During sleep apnea, you repeatedly stop breathing during sleep. You’ll briefly wake up to resume your breathing, even if you aren’t aware of it.
The interrupted sleep can lead to symptoms such as:
- excessive daytime sleepiness
- sleep deprivation
- dry mouth
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to long-term complications and health risks such as heart disease, memory loss, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
If sleep apnea is mild, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes. These include:
- losing weight
- quitting smoking
- treating nasal allergies
For moderate or severe cases, your doctor may prescribe a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device delivers a constant flow of air through a mask worn over your mouth and nose. This stream of air keeps passages from closing when you’re asleep.
If these treatments aren’t successful, your doctor may consider surgery to remove or reduce the tissue that closes into your airway. Your doctor may also consider jaw surgery. This procedure moves your jaw forward enough that air can freely move behind your tongue and soft palate.
Sleep paralysis causes temporary loss of muscle control and function. It occurs in the moments right before or right after you’ve fallen asleep. It can also occur as you’re trying to wake up.
Sleep paralysis is one of the most common sleep disturbances. One review Trusted Source estimated that 7 percent of people may experience it.
Symptoms of sleep paralysis include being unable to move your limbs, body, or head while you’re trying to sleep or wake up. These episodes may last a few seconds or several minutes.
Sleep paralysis doesn’t have a single known cause. Instead, it’s often thought of as a complication of some other condition.
For example, people who have the sleep disorder narcolepsy may frequently experience sleep paralysis. Other underlying conditions such as mental health issues and sleep deprivation can play a role, as can medication use and substance use.
Treatment for sleep paralysis primarily aims to address the underlying condition or issue that may be causing the loss of muscle function in the first place.
For example, doctors may prescribe antidepressants to people who have sleep paralysis caused by specific mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder.
You might be able to prevent some episodes of sleep paralysis.
Sleep and insomnia
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. Around one-third of adults are believed to experience insomnia symptoms. Up to 10 percent have symptoms severe enough for them to be diagnosed with clinical insomnia.
If you experience insomnia, you may have difficulty falling or staying asleep. It can also cause you to wake up too early or prevent you from feeling refreshed after you sleep.
Temporary insomnia can be caused by life events, including stress, trauma, or pregnancy. Changes to your daily habits, such as starting a job with non-traditional work hours, can also lead to temporary insomnia.
Chronic insomnia, however, may be the result of an underlying disorder or condition. These include:
- back pain
- knee pain
- anxiety or depression
- substance misuse
Common treatments for insomnia include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). You’ll work with a therapist to treat underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
- Sleep hygiene training. A sleep expert will work with you to establish better sleep practices.
- Treatment for underlying conditions. Your doctor will identify an issue that could be contributing to your sleep problem and seek to treat both conditions.
- Medication. In the short term, some sleep medicines may help ease insomnia symptoms.
- Lifestyle changes. Adjusting your daily schedule and activities may also prove beneficial. This includes avoiding caffeine and exercise near bedtime.
The bottom line
The primary goal of insomnia treatment is to help you get to sleep more easily. The secondary goal is to help treat any underlying cause or condition that’s keeping you from getting to sleep.
Despite the importance of sleep, 35.2 percent of American adults Trusted Source get fewer than 7 hours per night. Around 70 million Trusted Source U.S. adults have chronic sleep problems.
Sleep deprivation has a cumulative effect on your health. The longer you go without adequate sleep, the worse your health problems could become.
Long-term sleep deprivation can cause a variety of issues:
During sleep, your brain clears away plaques and proteins that form during the day. Without proper sleep, these plaques and proteins may remain.
Over time, this can interfere with how you process and remember new information, as well as how you form long-term memories.
If you don’t get enough sleep, your body’s immune defenses can’t stand up against invading bacteria and viruses, including the common cold and flu.
People who experience sleep deprivation may also have a lower sex drive due to a drop in the levels of testosterone.
Heart disease, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular conditions are more common in people who are chronically sleep deprived.
Research shows that not getting enough sleep makes you crave high-fat, high-calorie foods. Plus, the chemicals in your brain that normally tell you to stop eating aren’t as effective if you don’t sleep enough. This can cause you to gain weight.
The bottom line
Think of a sleep-deprived body as a car with a flat tire. The car is running, but it’s moving slowly with fewer capabilities and less power. The longer you drive in that condition, the more you’ll damage the car.
In addition to more serious health issues, sleep deprivation can also cause poor balance and increase your risk of accidents. Keep reading about the impact of sleep deprivation.
Good quality sleep can ward off many short-term issues such as fatigue and trouble concentrating. It can also prevent serious long-term health issues.
The benefits of good sleep include:
- Reduced inflammation. Sleep loss may cause inflammation throughout your body, leading to possible cell and tissue damage. Long-term inflammation may lead to chronic health issues such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Improved concentration. People who get adequate sleep are more productive and experience better performance, memory, and concentration than people who are chronically sleep deprived.
- Eating fewer calories. Sleep loss and deprivation upset the chemicals responsible for regulating appetite. This can lead you to overeat and possibly gain weight, so getting enough sleep can help.
- Decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. Poor sleep increases your risk for chronic cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Healthy sleep reduces your risk.
- Reduced risk of depression. Inadequate or low-quality sleep increases your risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In addition, 90 percent Trusted Source of people who’ve been diagnosed with depression report low sleep quality.
A good night’s sleep is about much more than preventing bags under your eyes.
Short-term sleep problems may not need medical treatment from your doctor. Lifestyle changes or over-the-counter (OTC) options may be sufficient.
Chronic sleep disturbances will likely need a doctor’s treatment plan.
The type of sleep treatment you use will depend on several factors:
- the underlying cause of your sleep disturbances
- the type of disturbances you’re experiencing
- how long you’ve been dealing with them
Treatment regimens for chronic sleep problems often include a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatments. Your doctor can help identify when more serious treatments, such as surgery, are needed.
Sleeping pills might be most useful for people with short-term problems, such as jet lag or stress. These medicines are designed to help you fall asleep or stay asleep.
However, they can have serious consequences if used long-term, including a risk for dependence.
Common OTC sleeping pills help regulate your sleep-wake cycle with low doses of antihistamines. These medicines include:
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Aleve PM)
- doxylamine succinate (Unisom)
Prescription sleeping pills are even more likely to cause dependency issues. That’s why you should work closely with your doctor and use them only as long as needed.
These medicines include:
- ramelteon (Rozerem)
- temazepam (Restoril)
- zaleplon (Sonata)
- zolpidem (Ambien)
- zolpidem extended release (Ambien CR)
Natural sleep aids
Some people with sleep deprivation may want to steer clear of medicines and use alternative treatments to help get some shut-eye. These include:
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle. It’s available as a dietary supplement.
- Valerian: Valerian is another natural sleep aid. It’s extracted from a plant and sold as a dietary supplement. However, research into its effects on insomnia aren’t conclusive.
- Lavender: Lavender aromatherapy is used as a sleep aid. Extracts of the purple flower may be used as a supplement.
Researchers continue to look for all-natural ways to induce sleep.
CBT is considered a first-line treatment for some sleep disturbances, including insomnia.
If you have trouble falling and staying asleep, talking with a therapist may help. The two of you will work together to identify and correct invasive thought patterns or ideas that could be preventing you from getting restful sleep.
Three types of essential oils show promise for treating sleep problems:
- Lavender. This relaxing scent is used in a variety of sleep-promoting products. Research suggests it can also influence your nervous system, promoting better and more restorative sleep as a result.
- Clary sage oil. Clary sage oil may also increase relaxation, which can promote sleep.
- Sleep blends. Essential oil blends, designed to promote sleep, are also available. These blends often incorporate oils such as lavender, spruce, and chamomile, all of which have relaxing properties.
These oils have all been studied for their impact on sleep.
With hypnosis, you can learn to relax your body and mind in preparation for sleep. Hypnosis is also used to reduce pain and ease symptoms of health conditions which may prevent restful sleep, such irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A trained hypnotherapist will use verbal instructions to help you enter a deep state of relaxation and focus. The therapist can then help you learn to respond to suggestions or cues that make sleep easier and more restorative.
It’s been suggested Trusted Source that hypnosis may boost the amount of time you stay in the deep sleep cycle. That can improve quality of sleep and allow you to feel more rested.
Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind on a thought or objective, such as reducing stress or relaxing.
People new to meditation may find that the practice helps them learn to relax and rest. As a result, sleep may become easier and more restful.
Guided meditations are typically performed by therapists, hypnotherapists, or other practitioners trained in proper techniques. These instructions may be available on tapes or podcasts, apps, or videos. You can also take classes from instructors.
The bottom line
Each sleep disorder requires a different treatment approach.
There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. When you fall asleep, you enter non-REM sleep. That’s followed by a brief period of REM sleep. The cycle continues throughout the night.
Non-REM sleep is divided into four stages that range from light sleep to deep sleep. Each stage is responsible for a different bodily reaction. For example, in stage one, your brainwaves begin to slow down, helping you move from the wakeful state to sleep.
You enter stage five of sleep, or REM sleep, about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. This is the point during which you experience dreaming.
Your eyes move rapidly from side to side, your heart rate also climbs back to a near-normal pace, and you may experience paralysis in your limbs.
The REM stage gets longer with each sleep cycle. The REM stages start short, but later REM stages can last up to an hour. On average, an adult will experience 5 to 6 REM stages per night.
All stages of sleep are important, but deep sleep and REM sleep are the most critical. The important restorative functions of sleep take place then. Find out what happens during the sleep stages, and discover why it’s important to get multiple sleep cycles each night.
You’re likely familiar with the effect that anxiety can have on sleep. If you’ve ever lain awake with the day’s unfinished tasks running through your head, then the relationship between the two is clear.
Stress and anxiety are leading risk factors for many sleep disorders and disruptions, including insomnia. Anxiety can make falling asleep more difficult, and it may also prevent you from getting restful sleep.
Likewise, people who experience chronic sleep problems may develop anxiety as a result. Bedtime may stir up a lot of worries and fears that you’ll get another poor night’s sleep. It’s enough to set you up for a restless evening of tossing and turning.
If your anxiety is affecting your sleep only occasionally, lifestyle changes may treat the disturbance.
A brief daily walk can help prime you for sleep, as can taking the hour before bed “off” and putting away all electronics or writing down the to-do list that’s running through your head.
If your sleep issues become chronic, it’s time to talk with your doctor. They can suggest possible treatments for insomnia, such as sleep aids and CBT.
The hormone melatonin is made naturally by your body. It helps tell your body to slow down for the evening and prepare for sleep. That’s why it’s often called the “sleep hormone.”
While melatonin isn’t solely responsible for sleep, it does affect your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This biological rhythm tells you when to wake, eat, and sleep.
For example, as your body senses the day getting darker, it produces more melatonin to ready you for bedtime. When the sun comes up and your body senses light, it shuts down melatonin production so that you can wake up.
OTC melatonin supplements are also available. If you’re experiencing insomnia or other sleep disturbances, consider supplements. They can boost your hormone levels so that your body gets back to its normal sleep-wake cycle.
Keep in mind that side effects from the drug are possible. It may be wise to discuss taking melatonin with your doctor before starting.
In addition to promoting healthy sleep, melatonin can also reduce heartburn as well as tinnitus symptoms. Discover other benefits of melatonin.
Babies need a lot of sleep in their earliest days. However, at around 4 months old, their sleep cycle may go haywire.
This is known as 4-month sleep regression. It’s normal and temporary, but it can be frustrating for parents and baby alike.
During this period, babies are growing and learning more about their surroundings. This may result in changes to their sleep patterns. Your baby may wake up during the night and refuse to go back to bed.
Symptoms of sleep regression include:
- taking fewer naps during the day
- not sleeping through the night
If your child is also experiencing symptoms such as a fever, nasal drainage, or upset stomach, they may be sick.
You can manage sleep regression by trying to provide outlets for your baby to use all of their energy and newfound skills. Allow for plenty of engagement and time for exploration.
You can also make sure your baby is well-fed. Babies that are hitting new developmental milestones or increasingly exploring their surroundings may be distracted and less likely to eat. A full belly can help them sleep longer.
Also, be sure to make their bedrooms as dark as possible. A dark room may signal to them to go back to sleep if they do wake up. Light, however, may stimulate them, encouraging them to wake up.
For some, sleep comes as naturally as blinking or breathing. For others, getting enough quality sleep is a major challenge that requires lifestyle changes or medical intervention.
There are numerous reasons for sleep problems, ranging from short-term stressors to serious, long-term sleep disorders.