Sleep: The key to good health
It’s something you spend roughly one-third of your life doing, yet don’t remember. An estimated 35% of people in the U.S., don’t get enough of it. And, it’s arguably the single most important thing you can do for your overall health and well-being. That’s right, you guessed it – we’re talking about sleep.
And even though sleep is something that’s instinctive and natural, a lot of people struggle with sleep problems. If you have trouble regularly getting the recommended seven to nine hours of shut eye per night, we’re here to help. Keep reading to learn what really goes on in your body when you sleep, how sleep and health are linked and tips for how to get better and more restful sleep.
What happens to your body while you sleep?
Have you ever had a bad night’s sleep and then spent the entire next day feeling off your game? That’s because your body relies on sleep as a time to recover and repair – so even one night of restless sleep can really do a number on your physical and mental health.
While you sleep, your body continuously cycles through four distinct sleep stages. Broadly these stages fall into two categories: sleep where there is no rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
NREM Sleep stages
The first three stages of sleep are NREM. This is where you’re dozing off, sleeping lightly and finally settling into a deep slumber. During these first stages of sleep, your breathing and heart rate slow and muscles relax. Additionally, brain activity goes through a series of predictable patterns that are necessary for proper cognitive functioning. This includes a process where your glymphatic system pumps cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain – essentially rinsing the brain of toxins.
REM Sleep stages
REM sleep, the fourth stage of the sleep cycle, is where the magic really happens. During REM sleep, heart rate, brain activity and many other bodily processes return to levels similar to when you’re awake. However, your muscles remain essentially paralyzed. Which is a good thing because REM sleep is when you have those strange dreams – queue showing up to work sans clothing or being able to fly. It’s also when your brain is working to make sense of everything you did during the day, which is why scientists believe REM sleep is essential for learning and long-term memory. As you cycle through each sleep stage, the duration of REM sleep increases – another important reason to get those seven to nine hours of slumber each night.
Everything from shifting hormones to anxiety over work deadlines and responsibilities at home can make it harder for women to fall and stay asleep.
Why good sleep is essential for good health
While much about what happens to our bodies and brains while we sleep remains a mystery, scientists agree that sleep is vital to regulate virtually every bodily system – including our hormones and immune system.
Given the important role sleep plays, it’s no wonder that you feel a bit off after a poor night’s sleep. Yep – stay up too late or find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night? The following day you’re not only likely to feel drowsy, but also more irritable and even anxious. And your immune system can take a hit too, making you more susceptible to viruses and illnesses including colds, sinus infections, bronchitis, cold sores, mastitis and psoriasis and eczema.
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For people who experience insomnia and sleep deprivation, the toll on their physical and mental health can be significant. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to numerous adverse health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression
6 tips for better sleep
Now that you know how important sleep is for a happy and healthy body and brain, let’s explore ways to get more and better sleep.
- Have a bedtime – Aim to go to bed at roughly the same time every night. Not sure what time your bedtime should be? Let your body’s natural circadian rhythm be your guide. Go to bed when you’re tired and at a time that allows you to get seven to nine hours of sleep.
- Turn off screens – Blue light from TV and phone screens can interfere with your body’s ability to produce melatonin—the hormone that helps you fall asleep. Avoid screens for at least an hour or two before you hit the hay.
- Get outside – Make a point to get some fresh air and sunlight during the day. Yes, even if it’s hot or cold out. Natural light and vitamin D help maintain your body’s circadian rhythm – making it easier to fall asleep at night.
- Curb eating and drinking – Eating too close to bedtime (especially foods that are rich or spicy) can do a number on your digestive system and disrupt your sleep. And, while that glass of wine may help you fall asleep, it also may be why you’re lying awake at 3 a.m.
- Keep it cool – Have you ever tried to fall asleep in a room that’s too hot or too cold? For most people the optimal temperature for a good night’s sleep is between 60 to 67° F. Depending on the season, crank up the air conditioner or turn down the thermostat and snuggle in for the night.
- Don’t share your bed with pets – Pets are awesome and if you have one, you love spending time with them. But that doesn’t mean you need to let Fido or Fifi share your bed. This is especially true if your pet is a bed hog or moves around a lot during the night.
Let’s face it, when it comes to sleep, most of us could use a little help. Make yourself and your sleep a priority. Your body and brain will thank you!
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