Getting more and better quality sleep can be beneficial on multiple health fronts.
“Insufficient sleep can decrease the immune system’s ability to be as strong as it should to fight common illnesses such as head colds and other viruses,” said Dr. Nathan Samras, a primary care physician at the University of California, Los Angeles Health. “It can also increase the risk and severity of various mood problems, including anxiety and depression.”
Waking up multiple times throughout the night, whether you remember you did or not, can also be problematic. Disrupted sleep, especially when caused by apnea (a disorder that causes snoring and chronic insomnia because breathing starts and stops) increases the risk of heart disease.
There are also general safety reasons to make sure you are getting enough sleep.
“Fifty-six million Americans admit they are struggling to keep their eyes open while driving,” said Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the Sleep Matters Initiative at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Eight million people every month lose that struggle and actually fall asleep at the wheel, causing over a million crashes, 55,000 debilitating injuries and nearly 7,000 deaths every year.”
The National Sleep Foundation has rough estimates on how much sleep you should be getting, but Czeisler also recommended conducting your own sleep experiment over a holiday or vacation.
Each night, set a bedtime alarm so you go to sleep at the same time, but do not set a wake-up alarm. Doing so will allow you to measure the sleep cycle that your body naturally wants.
“At first, when you are sleeping on the weekend, you might sleep nine or 10 hours, but that’s really making up for lost time,” Czeisler said.
However, over a series of days you’ll settle into a more natural pattern, sleeping more like 8.1-8.2 hours a night for the average person.
If weight loss is a goal for you, getting sufficient sleep can help you lose the right kind of pounds. Individuals on the same caloric diets lose the same amount of weight regardless of their sleep habits. But those getting insufficient sleep force their brain into a starvation mode, prompting weight loss from muscle mass rather than fat.
“If you are getting a sufficient amount of sleep, then you will lose twice as much fat when you are on that same diet,” Czeisler said.
Tips for better sleep
1. Read a book for 30 minutes before bedtime instead of watching brain-stimulating television.
2. Avoid food two hours before bed and stay away from liquids an hour before going to sleep.
3. “No caffeine from mid-afternoon on,” said Dr. Carolyn Kreinsen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and staff physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Substituting glasses of water for caffeinated beverages can also help with afternoon energy lags.
4. Make your bed as comfortable as possible. “If you don’t have a comfortable mattress, buy one if you can afford it,” Kreinsen said. “Get a topper. Get anything that is going to make you sleep better. Especially if pain is part of the reason you can’t sleep.”