Going to sleep has always been one of my favorite parts of the day. I can fall asleep within seconds and cherish every moment that I can get to catch those precious “zzzz’s”. However, like too many people living in our modernized world, I undervalued sleep for decades and even boasted about my ability to “get things done” on just a few hours of sleep. I was raising two young boys with my husband and had a career that I absolutely loved. So, I saw sleep as a luxury as I tried to be supermom, career woman and earn not just one, but three college degrees.
I’d love to say that age has made me wiser, but it’s actually taking the time to learn about the impact of sleep that has opened my eyes to its critical importance. Not just for me, but for the people I love around me.
Advances in neuroscience are now showing just how detrimental getting less than eight hours of sleep a night can be to our body and brains. In fact, consistently getting fewer than eight hours of sleep leads to significantly increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, mental illness, infertility, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity. Yet, as a society we consistently dismiss its importance because, much like someone has had too much to drink, we believe we are fine with a few hours of rest. Of course, research shows that despite “feeling fine” with less sleep we are less productive, more emotional, and a safety risk to ourselves and others at work and behind the wheel of a car.
Many people claim that living a “fit lifestyle” entails eating well, exercising regularly, and getting good sleep. Great advice indeed. However, Dr. Matthew Walker, the author of the bestseller Why We Sleep, would argue that sleep is actually the foundation of living fit. Without consistently good sleep, you’re undermining your nutrition and exercise habits. When your body misses out on the full eight hours of sleep, it starts to break down muscle instead of fat. Plus, you are more likely to eat more calories from less healthy options and become less motivated to exercise.
Based on the science, sleep is the most important practice you can incorporate into living fit.
So, what do you do if you aren’t getting the recommended eight hours of sleep each night? First of all, make it a priority. Based on the science, it’s the most important practice you can incorporate into living fit. Second, recognize that establishing your new sleep schedule will take time and effort. It will require you to be disciplined in protecting those precious eight hours from work, family, friends, and yourself!
Now, if you’re one of those people who have difficulty sleeping or just want to do it well, here are some tips for setting yourself up for snoozing success:
Commit to getting to bed at a consistent time every night and choose a time that allows you to get your full eight hours.
Eliminate caffeine and alcohol several hours before bedtime. According to Dr. Walker, 50% of the caffeine effect can still be found in our bodies eight hours after consumption. As for alcohol, it actually disrupts our sleep pattern which contributes to poor quality sleep and less than optimal energy the next day.
Be mindful of your munching. The less sleep you get, the more likely you are to eat (and eat poorly!) and the less efficient your body becomes in using those calories. This is because your body suppresses leptin and triggers ghrelin, the two hormones that tell you that you’re full and hungry respectively.
Reduce your LED screen time prior to bedtime. The light from our laptops, cell phones, and TVs actually stimulate our brains and counteract the natural rise in melatonin, the agent that tells us we are getting tired. I know it’s old school, but read a book or magazine instead!
Keep your bedroom dark and cooler for optimum sleep quality. We sleep better in total darkness and when our bodies are running at a cooler temperature. A sleep mask or blackout curtains can help.
Reconsider taking sleep aids. Unfortunately, sleep aids help you get to sleep, but short- change your natural sleep rhythm. They also affect the important work the brain does through the night in storing knowledge and memories. As a result, sleep aids and their sleep-disruptive behavior is now linked to dementia and other mental illnesses such as depression.
One last bit of glorious advice: Skip the afternoon caffeine boost and take a short 40-90 minute nap instead. Humans are actually designed for napping, but society has made it nearly impossible to enjoy a little afternoon siesta. Napping enhances your brain functioning and contributes to your overall emotional and physical well-being while improving your productivity as well. Isn't that beautiful? So, happy snoozing!