National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)

When you’re in a rush to meet work, school, family,
or household responsibilities, do you cut back on your
sleep? Like many people, you might think that sleep is
merely a “down time” when the brain shuts off and the
body rests. Think again.

What Is Sleep?

Sleep was long considered just a uniform block of time
when you are not awake. Thanks to sleep studies done
over the past several decades, it is now known that
sleep has distinctive stages that cycle throughout the
night. Your brain stays active throughout sleep, but
different things happen during each stage. For instance,
certain stages of sleep are needed for us to feel well
rested and energetic the next day, and other stages
help us learn or make memories.

In brief, a number of vital tasks carried out during sleep
help maintain good health and enable people to function
at their best. On the other hand, not getting enough sleep
can be dangerous—for example, you are more likely to be
in a car crash if you drive when you are drowsy.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Some people believe that adults need less sleep as they
get older. But there is no evidence to show that older
people can get by with less sleep than younger people.
As people age, however, they often get less sleep or they
tend to spend less time in the deep, restful stages of
sleep. Older people are also more easily awakened.

Why Sleep Is Good for You, and Skimping on It Isn’t

Does it really matter if you get enough sleep?
Absolutely! Not only does the quantity of your sleep
matter, but the quality of your sleep is important as
well. People whose sleep is interrupted a lot or is cut
short might not get enough of certain stages of sleep.
In other words, how well rested you are and how well
you function the next day depend on your total sleep
time and how much of the various stages of sleep you
get each night.

Performance: We need sleep to think clearly, react
quickly, and create memories. In fact, the pathways in
the brain that help us learn and remember are very
active when we sleep. Studies show that people who
are taught mentally challenging tasks do better after a
good night´s sleep. Other research suggest that it is
needed for creative problem solving.

Skimping on sleep has a price. Cutting back by even
1 hour can make it tough to focus the next day and
can slow your response time. Studies also find that
when you lack sleep, you are more likely to make bad
decisions and take more risks. This can result in lower
performance on the job or in school and a greater risk
for a car crash.

Mood: Sleep also affects mood. Insufficient sleep can
make you irritable and is linked to poor behavior and
trouble with relationships, especially among children
and teens. People who chronically lack sleep are also
more likely to become depressed.

Health: Sleep is also important for good health.
Studies show that not getting enough sleep or getting
poor quality sleep on a regular basis increases the risk
of having high blood pressure, heart disease, and other
medical conditions.

In addition, during sleep, your body produces valuable
hormones. Deep sleep triggers more release of growth
hormone, which fuels growth in children, and helps
build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues in
children and adults. Another type of hormone that
increases during sleep works to fight various infections.
This might explain why a good night’s sleep helps keep
you from getting sick—and helps you recover when you
do get sick.

Hormones released during sleep also affect how the
body uses energy. Studies find that the less people
sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight or
obese, to develop diabetes, and to prefer eating foods
that are high in calories and carbohydrates.

It’s About Time

How sleepy you are depends largely on how well
you’ve been sleeping and how much sleep you’ve been
getting. Another key factor is your internal “biological
clock”—a tiny bundle of cells in your brain that
responds to light signals through your eyes and
promotes wakefulness. Because of the timing of the
biological clock and other bodily processes, you
naturally feel drowsy between midnight and 7 a.m. and
again in the midafternoon between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Night shift workers often find themselves drowsy at
work. They also have trouble falling asleep or staying
asleep during the day, when their schedules require
them to sleep. Being sleepy puts them at risk for
injuries on the road and at work. Night shift workers
are also more likely to have conditions such as heart
disease, digestive disorders, and infertility, as well as
emotional problems. All of these problems may be
related, at least in part, to their chronic lack of sleep.

Adapting to new sleep and wake times can also be hard
for travelers crossing time zones, resulting in what’s
known as jet lag. Jet lag can lead to daytime sleepiness,
trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, poor
concentration, and irritability.

The good news is that by using appropriately timed
cues, most people can change their biological clock,
but only by 1–2 hours per day at best. Therefore, it
can take several days to adjust to a new time zone (or
different work schedule). If you’ll be moving across
time zones, you might want to begin adapting to the
new time zone a few days before leaving. Or, if you are
traveling for just a few days, you might want to stick
with your original sleep schedule and not try to adjust
to the new time zone.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Like eating well and being physically active, getting a
good night’s sleep is vital to your well-being. Here are
13 tips to help you:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at
    the same time each day—even on the weekends.
  • Exercise is great but not too late in the day. Avoid
    exercising closer than 5 or 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine. The stimulating effects
    of caffeine in coffee, colas, teas, and chocolate can
    take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Nicotine is
    also a stimulant.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. A “nightcap”
    might help you get to sleep, but alcohol keeps you in
    the lighter stages of sleep. You also tend to wake up
    in the middle of the night when the sedating effects
    have worn off.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
    A large meal can cause indigestion that interferes
    with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can
    cause you to awaken frequently to urinate.
  • Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep,
    if possible. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood
    pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some
    over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs,
    colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can boost your
    brain power, but late afternoon naps can make it
    harder to fall asleep at night. Also, keep naps to
    under an hour.
  • Relax before bed. Take time to unwind. A relaxing
    activity, such as reading or listening to music, should
    be part of your bedtime ritual.
  • Take a hot bath before bed. The drop in body
    temperature after the bath may help you feel sleepy,
    and the bath can help relax you.
  • Have a good sleeping environment. Get rid of
    anything that might distract you from sleep, such as
    noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or a TV
    or computer in the bedroom. Also, keeping the
    temperature in your bedroom on the cool side can
    help you sleep better.
  • Have the right sunlight exposure. Daylight is key to
    regulating daily sleep patterns. Try to get outside in
    natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day.
  • Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself still
    awake after staying in bed for more than 20
    minutes, get up and do some relaxing activity until
    you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to
    sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • See a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.
    If you consistently find yourself feeling tired or not
    well rested during the day despite spending enough
    time in bed at night, you may have a sleep disorder.
    Your family doctor or a sleep specialist should be
    able to help you.

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