How to Maximize Sleep to Improve Health

When children are little, parents put a huge emphasis on their sleep patterns. They create elaborate bedtime routines, track and manage when they are going to bed and how long they are sleeping for, and even craft their days around much-needed naps. However, as adults, people don’t put enough emphasis on their own sleep or even view it as an important element of health and wellbeing. At any age, sleep is one of the most crucial health elements that many people are deprived of — often unknowingly.  

While at rest, the body is quite busy. The body is genetically designed to sleep at night when the sun goes down and rise with the sun, and during this time it repairs itself and releases toxins so one can arise feeling renewed. But without sufficient restful sleep, it’s hard to feel refreshed and energized at the beginning of a new day. Those that practice irregular sleep patterns or work night shifts, for example, may struggle with their health simply due to lack of sleep, which can result in chronic inflammation and disease such as diabetes and premature liver failure. Lack of sleep can also result in lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the kind that protects); higher levels of triglyceride, which has been linked to increase risk of heart disease; and higher amounts of body fat.  

Furthermore, a very recent study funded by and published in part on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s website notes that “for every hour of variability in time to bed and time asleep, a person may have up to a 27 percent greater chance of experiencing a metabolic abnormality.” This could include hypertension, high blood sugar and more. The study’s author, Tianyi Huang, Sc.D., epidemiologist of the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospitalgoes on to say that “every one-hour night-to-night difference in the time to bed or the duration of a night’s sleep multiplies the adverse metabolic effect.” 

A multitude of studies point to seven hours as the magic number when it comes to how much sleep a person should aim to get each night. However, this can vary slightly with each individual. Additional research suggests that “catching up on sleep” actually does not offer the body any advantages over getting a steady dose of seven hours of shuteye every night.  

To ensure a good night’s rest, it’s important to establish a pattern or routine that the body can learn to anticipate. A sleep ritual can include a winding down period such as taking a soothing bath, reading in bed or having a cup of warm tea and a light bedtime snack. The Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing website suggests exercising during the day, keeping the bedroom comfortable and avoiding stimuli such as alcohol or chocolate prior to bedtime. The article also advises to use the bed only for “sleep and sex” versus for work or watching television. Another stimulus that has been blamed for disrupting one’s ability to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest as of late is screen time. Blue light in particular has been found to suppress the body’s ability to secrete melatonin, the hormone which regulates the body’s sleep and wake cycles — so it’s a good idea to shut down those screens a few hours before bed. 

Those that struggle with getting sufficient sleep each night may benefit from starting a journal to track their patterns (including how long it takes to get to sleep and how many times they wake in the night) and also instilling a regular routine, much as parents do for an infant or toddler. With some effort put forth into “sleeping like a baby,” one’s health can be indefinitely improved. 

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