Sleep is an integral part of living, and it’s an activity that we will spend a third of our lives doing, yet it can be a complicated question to ask, why do we sleep? Scientists have studied every aspect of sleep, including what happens to us biologically when we sleep, and how the need for sleep evolved. After decades of research, there are several promising theories about why we sleep and what happens while we are sleeping.
The most likely theory is that sleep serves as a restorative and rejuvenating process, in which major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep. Sleep also restores our brain and our cognitive functions. New studies theorize that our brain undergoes changes in structure and organization of the brain during sleep. This is known as brain plasticity and is a relatively new field of study.
So now that we know a little more about the science behind sleep, let’s explore how sleep directly impacts our day to day life. We all know that getting a terrible nights sleep makes for an unpleasant day the next day. You feel sluggish, are extremely irritable, and have difficulty performing your usual tasks. All you want to do is collapse and rest. Your eyes burn, you have brain fog, and your energy is tanked. Numerous studies show that sleeping affects our creativity, productivity, and our physical and mental health. Sleep also affects our levels of leptin and ghrelin, two important hormones that tell our body when we are full and when we are hungry. Clearly, getting enough shut eye each night directly impacts the quality of our daily lives in many ways.
Between the stress of work and family demands, you may be juggling so many things at once and are not prioritizing yourself and your sleep. You may think to yourself that you have too much to do to go to bed early, or you try to go to sleep early but your brain has a hard time shutting down. This probably sounds all too familiar to you and you deserve to have consistent good sleep!
It’s bad enough that our society glamorizes those who are non-stop working and living an overwhelmingly stressful life. Seeking success at the detriment of our basic health is irresponsible. Working hard and not restoring your brain and body at night is not the only option. If you want to live a long and healthy life while also working hard, focus on balance.
You can balance getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep a night and working hard. It is possible. Prioritizing yourself starts with the foundation of good sleep. Work and life stress will always be there of course, but with a full nights rest night after night you will have the ability to totally show up as your best and most resilient self. If you want to be successful, lay the foundation for restoration for your brain and body so that you can continue enjoying your life for decades to come.
If I had to rank the healthiest habits to adopt in order of importance, sleep would most definitely top the list. In addition to eating plenty of nourishing foods and getting regular exercise, we need to prioritize getting enough quality sleep each night.
There are multitudes of personal and specific reasons why people aren’t getting enough sleep. Perhaps they have a new baby, are a busy working professional, or suffer from an overactive mind. Sleep habits also shift over time. There’s no magic potion for getting enough sleep, and as uniquely individual as humans are, what works for one person won’t always work for someone else. However I have a few research backed tips and suggestions that significantly improve sleep quality. Try them out and see which ones work for you.
Committing to getting more sleep is a great goal to start with. Better sleep is possible with these healthy sleep habits.
• Try to sleep and wake at consistent times to regulate your circadian rhythm, which is our bodies internal clock. The body’s circadian rhythm is on a loop which aligns with sunrise and sunset. Waking up and going to bed consistently helps improve sleep quality and strengthens the circadian rhythm.
• Early morning sunlight also helps regulate our circadian rhythm. Try to get daily sunlight exposure during the sunnier months, and use a light box during the winter months to mimic the sun’s rays.
• Reduce blue light exposure at night. Blue light tricks our brain into thinking it’s still daytime, which reduces melatonin production, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Install an app that blocks blue light on your phone, wear blue light blocking glasses, or turn off the tv and put your phone on do not disturb at least 2 hours before bedtime.
• Don’t drink caffeine late in the day. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and significantly impacts sleep quality. Do not drink caffeine after 3 p.m. especially if you’re sensitive to caffeine or have sleep issues.
• Don’t eat late in the evening. Eating late at night negatively affects sleep quality by disrupting the natural release of HGH and melatonin, both of which are involved in making us feel sleepy. However, a light snack a few hours before bed may help people fall asleep faster.
• Optimize your bedroom. Minimize external noise, light, and artificial lights from technology. Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing. Set your bedroom temperature around 70F.
• Relax and clear your mind in the evening. Wind down before bed by reading a book, listening to relaxing music, taking a hot bath, meditation, deep breathing, and visualization.
• Regular exercise has been scientifically proven to improve sleep. Just make sure you’re not exercising too close to bedtime because it will cause sleep problems by increasing alertness and raising hormone levels of epinephrine and adrenaline.
• Try essential oils. Lavender oil is a calm and relaxing scent that helps give you feelings of tranquility and peace.
• Before bed each night, write down all your thoughts for 5 minutes and empty out your brain. I call this a brain dump.
• Practice meditation. Follow a guided meditation or practice progressive muscle relaxation in bed