Are you sick of counting sheep night after night only to have them run away from you, leaving you clutching the grass in slumberless exhaustion? Do you go to bed later than you should, sleep lighter than you’d like, and wake up feeling dead tired? If so, you are not alone. Almost one fifth of Americans have chronic sleep issues and one third don’t get enough sleep, making sleep problems a significant health issue in the United States(1). It goes without saying that good sleep is essential to health. We all know what it feels like to drag ourselves through the day because we slept terribly. Even though feeling tired all day long isn’t fun, we still do it, pushing off sleep to work harder, telling ourselves that we’ll sleep when we’re dead. But you might be surprised at just how important sleep is, and the ways in which it affects not just the quality of your daily life, but also the cellular makeup of your body, the intricacies of your psychological well being, and the length of your life. By telling ourselves that we’ll sleep when we are dead, we might actually find ourselves dying far too soon.
More than likely, you are fully aware that a good night’s sleep helps you feel refreshed, energized, and awake, but you probably don’t know everything that sleep does for you. Sleep is a crucial part of a healthy life. Without good quality sleep, our cognitive and psychological health suffers, leaving us unfocused and irritable. Our metabolism and digestive systems struggle, making it easier to gain weight and develop metabolic diseases like diabetes. Lack of sleep also makes our immune system less effective, since it is during sleep that our bodies produce a significant portion of our infection-fighting cells. Without ample amounts of these crucial, germ-kicking special agents in our system, we are more likely to fall prey to infectious diseases and take longer to recover. Plus, poor sleep means that our hormonal and cardiovascular systems don’t function as well and we are at a higher risk for significant diseases, such as cancer or heart disease, and a younger death. Poor sleep has both a short-term and long-term impact on our quality and quantity of life.
I get it, though: we often feel like good sleep is outside of our control. We know we need it, but we can’t seem to get it. We have busy lives, crowded thoughts, and high levels of stress. But, I promise you, we aren’t powerless against chronic exhaustion and looming long-term health problems. There are strategies that we can use to both sleep and feel better.
But what does good sleep even mean? Before we can change our habits, we first have to know what we are aiming for. The CDC recommends that adults get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted, restorative sleep a night. This means falling asleep easily, staying asleep, and waking up feeling refreshed. Sounds like a dream, right? (Pun intended). Seriously though: this can be so hard to achieve. We all know how easy it is to de-prioritize our sleep, planning to catch up on it later. But sleep debt accumulates and our bodies pay the penalty, urging us to intentionally cultivate healthy sleeping habits now.
Overhauling your entire sleep routine might feel impossible and a little overwhelming (especially if you’ve slept poorly for a long time). But, as with all attempts at behavior change, purposefully creating a plan that includes smaller steps and subgoals makes success much more likely. Your larger goal is to get those 7-9 hours of restorative sleep every night but, in order to get there, you should first create smaller goals and focus on achieving them one at a time.
One important contributor to sleep quality is your sleep environment. Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark. If needed, invest in a white noise machine(2) and blackout curtains(3). Try to reserve your bed for relaxing only as this gives your brain the psychological cue that, when you are in your bed, it is time to relax and fall asleep, making sleep come easier. 30-60 minutes before you want to fall asleep, dim the lights, shut off devices with screens (or switch your device to night mode to reduce the blue wave light), and begin relaxing. Some relaxation strategies include a warm shower or bath, candles, reading a book, and meditating.
Additionally, drinking caffeine-free tea before bed is a relaxing habit that has multiple benefits. Chamomile tea(6) is a popular, herbal tea that has been shown to reduce anxiety and induce sleep, making it the perfect nighttime drink.(7) Plus, chamomile contributes to overall health and wellness since it can positively affect both the cardiovascular system and digestive system as well as lower overall pain and inflammation. Caffeine-free green tea(8) is another excellent choice because green tea contains L-theanine, an amino-acid that has an anti-stress effect and is tied to improved sleep quality(9). Regardless of which you choose, caffeine-free tea can help tremendously with sleep issues.
One particularly crucial element of restorative sleep is a regulated, well-functioning circadian rhythm. Our biological clock governs the times of our wakefulness and sleepiness. A recent study by Arizona State University(10) discovered that exercise has a profound effect on this rhythm and has the capacity to shift sleep times forward or back depending on the time of exercise. In particular, the study found that exercise at 7am or between 1 and 4pm can move sleep times to earlier in the day, which is helpful to individuals who struggle falling asleep at a reasonable time. Additionally, daily exposure to sunlight is important(11), as daylight changes are essential biological triggers for our brain’s timed releases of melatonin, a hormone that is important for drowsiness and sleep. Morning daylight is especially important because it signals to your body that the day has begun and provides clues as to when you should go to sleep. Release of this hormone can be suppressed and hindered by prolonged exposure to short-wave, blue light. Electronic devices emit this light, making nighttime use of your phone or laptop a sleep-sabotaging habit. You can reduce this effect by dimming your screens, switching displays to night mode (a feature which a lot of devices have that shift the spectrum of emitted light away from blue light and towards warmer tones such as yellow and orange, wavelengths which don’t disrupt sleep), and by leaving an hour gap between device use and your bedtime. The timely release of melatonin is important for other reasons also. In particular, it is linked to DNA regulation and tumor growth suppression(12). In layman’s terms, that means that low levels of melatonin are linked to cancerous tumor growth. Insufficient and non restorative sleep due to an irregular circadian rhythm (such as through lack of exposure to sunlight or prolonged, nighttime exposure to blue light in electronic devices) can actually lead to cancer.
Diet, caffeine, and alcohol intake also affect sleep. Heavier meals right before bedtime can induce heartburn, leading to disrupted sleep, so leave a few hours gap between a large meal and sleep. A small snack is alright, especially if you are feeling hungry, as hunger can delay sleep also. Caffeine can affect your body for up to 8 hours so should be consumed only in the morning and early afternoon. Additionally, alcohol can affect the quality of your sleep. The drowsiness sometimes induced by a nightcap can give the impression that alcohol can be used as a sleep aid, but this impression is an illusion: alcohol consumption actually reduces the depth of sleep, particularly in the second half of the night, leading to unrefreshing rest. Given this, it is best to allow a few hours between alcohol and your bedtime to make space for restorative sleep.
Keep in mind that chronic pain can also substantially hinder sleep. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, sleep deprivation progressively increases pain levels, creating a self-perpetuating loop of suffering that is difficult to break(13). Change isn’t impossible, though. Finding relief for chronic pain can be a complicated process, involving a lot of trial and error, but it can be done. Most often, a multi-faceted approach is best. Strategies involving gratitude and mindfulness(14), diet change, exercise goals, and manual therapy, among other things, are tremendously helpful. Plus, maintaining a healthy social support system and pursuing meaningful goals will help to infuse your life with satisfaction, making pain less destructive to your sense of self and less intrusive to your thoughts.
All of these tangible, physical changes can make a world of difference in the length and quality of our sleep. We all know, however, how our mental and emotional states often disrupt sleep more than anything else does. In fact, one of the primary symptoms in most psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, is problems with sleep, whether that be insomnia and sleeplessness, excessive drowsiness and fatigue, or excessive amounts of sleep. Emotional and mental health affect more than the quality of our lives as a whole; they also disproportionately impact our physical health. The self-care tips mentioned above for chronic pain also apply here; mindfulness, meditation, a healthy diet, and a meaningful social support structure are all useful in the treatment of emotional and mental health issues. Keep in mind that the help of a mental health professional will help you to get to the root of issues and establish a care plan to help manage psychological symptoms. Sleep issues and psychological issues impact each other in a vicious cycle that can often only be untangled and remedied with professional help.
One specific aspect of our mental and emotional life that affects our sleep is our thought life, particularly in terms of how we think about sleep. For instance, when someone who suffers from insomnia catastrophizes about how little sleep they are going to get, focusing on how bad tomorrow could be because of their tiredness, it is even harder for them to fall asleep. Instead of lying in bed worrying, get up and focus on something else, such as reading, so that your mind and body can calm down, relax, and get ready for sleep. If you have been experiencing chronic
sleep issues, even the act of getting ready for sleep and lying in bed can trigger feelings of fear and worry. In this situation, cognitive behavioral therapy specifically targeting insomnia and sleep issues can help reframe the way that you think about sleep, making it feel safe again.
Sleep is essential to our health, but good sleep can be hard to come by. Thankfully, there is a wealth of resources available to help us understand sleep, shape our lives to facilitate it, and troubleshoot why we might be having trouble with it. The strategies and tips mentioned in this article can make good quality sleep much easier to achieve. Your sleep problems don’t have to last forever. You can wake up feeling rested and ready to face the day. The sleep you need is closer than you think!
“1 In 3 Adults Don't Get Enough Sleep.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Feb. 2016, www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html.
Goodman, Amanda. New Research Identifies Best Exercise Times for Adjusting Body's Internal Clock. 21 Feb. 2019, asunow.asu.edu/20190220-discoveries-new-research-identifies-specific-exercise-times-shifting-internal-clock.
Kennedy, Madeline. Morning Daylight Exposure Tied to a Good Night's Sleep. 18 May 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-health-sleep-daylight/morning-daylight-exposure-tied-to-a-good-nights-sleep-idUSKCN18E23E.
Srivastava, Janmejai K et al. “Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future.” Molecular medicine reports vol. 3,6 (2010): 895-901. doi:10.3892/mmr.2010.377
Unno, Keiko et al. “Reduced Stress and Improved Sleep Quality Caused by Green Tea Are Associated with a Reduced Caffeine Content.” Nutrients vol. 9,7 777. 19 Jul. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9070777
William Deardorff, PhD. “Chronic Pain and Insomnia: Breaking the Cycle.” Spine, www.spine-health.com/wellness/sleep/chronic-pain-and-insomnia-breaking-cycle.
Zubidat, A. E., et al. “Artificial Light at Night of Different Spectral Compositions Differentially Affects Tumor Growth in Mice: Interaction With Melatonin and Epigenetic Pathways.” Cancer Control, Jan. 2018, doi:10.1177/1073274818812908.