One-third of U.S. adults are struggling to get a good night’s rest, according to a jointly conducted web survey by Gallup and mattress retailer Casper. This suggests that nearly 84 million Americans are not getting adequate sleep.
Moreover, 65% said they were unable to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
This sleep deficit has negative health consequences. Research confirms that not getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night, or getting poor quality sleep, increases risks for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and atherosclerosis, which happens when fatty deposits build up in arteries. Not getting enough sleep is linked to weight gain, diabetes and inflammation, all of which can worsen cardiovascular disease.
The survey of more than 3,000 adults indicated that stress is a major factor in this epidemic of sleepless. If the word epidemic sounds hyperbolic, that’s exactly how the CDC describes it.
Two years of the coronavirus pandemic drove stress levels to extraordinary levels and even as that now begins to wane, new stressors seem to have supplanted it. An American Psychological Association study recently found that Americans are feeling more anxious about inflation, global uncertainty, and the war in Ukraine.
Our emotional and mental states are major contributing factors to how easily we fall asleep and whether we stay asleep all night.
There are strategies you can utilize to help improve your sleep. For example, 30 minutes of daily exercise improves your odds of a great night’s sleep by 30%. That’s because exercise helps work off stress and anxiety. Moving your body and raising your heart rate help ensure a better night’s sleep.
Creating some form of ambient white noise, such as with a fan or noise machine that creates nature sounds, can also be calming, soothing and sleep inducing.
Healthy nutrition, meditation and/or breathing exercises can also be quite helpful. For example, you can count your in-breaths or out-breaths from one to 10. You can then count them backwards from 10 to one. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breathing and start counting from one again. Focused breathing is relaxing in and of itself, but it can also help stop the mind from wandering. If you practice while lying in bed, eventually you’ll fall asleep while counting your breaths.
Another useful strategy is to have a specific bedtime routine that you follow every night. Varying bedtimes and wake times put your body’s internal clock, the circadian clock, out of cycle. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends, prevents this disruption. Changes in your sleep schedule thwart a natural sleep pattern, which throws off your circadian cycle.
A regular bed time is critical for your health and wellness, as is a regular waking time. Additionally, sleeping too long can affect your ability to fall asleep that night. After a good night’s sleep, most people need to be awake around 16 hours before they feel sleepy again.
Going to sleep between 10:00 pm and 11:00 pm is associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease compared to earlier or later bedtimes, according to a new study by the European Society of Cardiology. Early or late bedtimes may be more likely to disrupt the body’s circadian clock, with adverse consequences for cardiovascular health, according to the study’s authors.
The incidence of cardiovascular disease was highest in those with sleep times at midnight or later (25% higher risk) and lowest in those with sleep onset from 10:00 to 10:59 pm. There was a 24% higher risk for falling asleep before 10:00 pm.
When it gets dark, your brain ramps up its production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Essentially, melatonin helps you fall asleep — and stay asleep. On the other hand, light signals your brain to stop making melatonin, which helps you wake up and feel alert in the morning.
Too much light just before bedtime, especially the blue light from electronic devices, can also disrupt our internal clocks. The brain’s nighttime surge of melatonin is known as melatonin onset. This naturally occurs as the sun sets and your environment literally starts to dim.
However, modern humans no longer live by the sun’s daily cycle. We now have the ability to artificially keep our home environments bright at night. All that light signals to your body that it’s still daytime, which definitely doesn’t help you fall asleep. For this reason, it’s best to turn off screens and other intense lights a half-hour or so before bedtime. Reading by a dim light just before bed is a great way to ready the brain and induce sleep.
Eliminating light in your bedroom is also a key requisite to a good night’s sleep. Even small sources of light, such as from your alarm clock or smoke detector can be disruptive, according to sleep research. There are tiny receptor cells in your retina that look for light intensity. Sleeping in a pitch-black environment helps ensure that those retinal receptors don’t find any light — until you’re ready to wake up in the morning.
However, totally blacking out your room, such as with blackout curtains, in order to create a perfect sleep chamber may not be realistic for you. Yet, most of us can wear a sleep mask.
Wearing a sleep mask could actually benefit your health. A small study at Northwestern University found that participants who slept in a dimly lit room had a continuously elevated heart rate. And in the morning, they also had more trouble getting their blood sugar into a normal range, a condition known as insulin resistance.
These physiological changes happened even though their actual sleep wasn’t really disturbed. In fact, the participants generally said they slept fine. Yet, their brains and hearts knew that the lights were on, even though these people were sleeping. Even a relatively small amount of light was enough to shift their nervous systems into a more alert and activated state. The study provides evidence that sleeping with even relatively dim light exposure can be disruptive to our sleep-wake cycle.
The resulting risk of chronic diseases like insulin resistance, diabetes, other cardio-metabolic problems is real. One five-year observational study of more than 40,000 women found that having a light or TV on while sleeping was associated with an increased risk of gaining more than 10 pounds.
Furthermore, research shows that a lack of sleep can:
• Affect cognition, decreasing focus and work productivity
• Sap your energy and desire to work out
• Elevate appetite and food cravings
• Lead to more impulsive decisions, impacting food choices
• Boost irritability, straining relationships
• Increase stress levels (which makes sleep more difficult)
In summation, for all these reasons, it’s best to:
• Exercise daily, even if it’s just a walk
• Create a cool, dark bedroom environment that’s conducive to sleep
• Prepare for sleep by dimming lights and not using blue-light emitting devices 30 minutes before bed
• Stop watching news or other distressing content before bed
• Use breathing exercises when you’re having trouble sleeping
• Keep specific bed and wake times
• Wear a sleep mask
Follow these tips, and you’ll enjoy a continually better night’s rest and, ultimately, a better quality of life.