Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout our life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect our mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. The way we feel while we are awake depends in part on what happens while we are sleeping.
Sleep helps our brain work properly. While we are sleeping, our brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help us learn and remember information. Sleep plays an important role in our physical health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity.
Getting enough quality sleep at the right times helps us function well throughout the day. People who are sleep deficient are less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes. As a result, sleep deficiency is not only harmful on a personal level, but it also can cause large-scale damage. For example, sleep deficiency has played a role in human errors linked to tragic accidents, such as nuclear reactor meltdowns, grounding of large ships, and aviation accidents.
Insomnia is a type of sleep disorder. Individuals with insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. People with insomnia often do not feel refreshed when they wake up from sleeping. This can lead to fatigue and other symptoms. Insomnia is the most common of all sleep disorders. Approximately 40% of adults with insomnia also have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder — most notably depression.
Insomnia is generally caused by hectic work schedules. Your body releases chemicals in a daily rhythm, which your body clock controls. When it gets dark, your body releases a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin signals your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep, and it helps you feel drowsy. The amount of melatonin in your bloodstream peaks as the evening wears on. Researchers believe this peak is an important part of preparing your body for sleep. Exposure to bright artificial light like the light from a TV screen, computer screen, or a very bright alarm clock in the late evening can disrupt this process, making it hard to fall asleep. Acute insomnia is sometimes caused by stressful events.
You can take steps to improve your sleep habits. First, make sure that you allow yourself enough time to sleep. With enough sleep each night, you may find that you’re happier and more productive during the day.
To improve your sleep habits, it also may help to:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. For children, have a set bedtime and a bedtime routine. Do not use the child’s bedroom for timeouts or punishment.
- Try to keep the same sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends. Limit the difference to no more than about an hour. Staying up late and sleeping in late on weekends can disrupt your body clock’s sleep–wake rhythm.
- Use the hour before bed for quiet time. Avoid strenuous exercise and bright artificial light, such as from a TV or computer screen. The light may signal the brain that it’s time to be awake.
- Avoid heavy and/or large meals within a couple hours of bedtime. (Having a light snack is okay.) Also, avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
- Avoid nicotine (for example, cigarettes) and caffeine (including caffeinated soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate). Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants, and both substances can interfere with sleep. The effects of caffeine can last as long as 8 hours. So, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night.
- Spend time outside every day (when possible) and be physically active.
- Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark (a dim night light is fine, if needed).
- Take a hot bath or use relaxation techniques before bed.
This article provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. You must talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about questions regarding sleep and what may be best for your overall health.