While a clean diet and regular exercise are often emphasized as pillars of health, achieving adequate and restful sleep is also critical to living a healthy life. Approximately one-third of our time should be spent in slumber. It is a basic physiological need that has been fundamentally conserved across species; several theories have been proposed to explain the evolutionary benefit of sleep:
- The inactivity theory says that creatures inactive at night were less likely to die from predation.
- The energy conservation theory states that sleep functions to preserve energy when hunting for food may be the least efficient.
- The restorative theory states that sleep allows the body to repair itself and is based on the fact that hormones necessary for growth and repair are released primarily during sleep.
- The brain plasticity theory states that sleep is necessary for neural reorganization and proper growth and development of the mature brain.
Modern life – poor work-life balance, high stress, prolonged screen exposure, and so on – makes it difficult to achieve a good night’s rest. It’s no wonder that insufficient sleep – a shorter sleep duration than required to maintain daytime wakefulness – is now considered to be a public health epidemic.
Sufficient sleep supports our brain’s ability to retain and recall information, maintain focus, and make decisions. In the short term, a single night of sleep loss may interfere with these essential cognitive functions and impact mood. In the long-term, repetitive sleep loss has been linked to many chronic health issues, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity, and depression.
Adopting good sleep habits, also referred to as “sleep hygiene,” involves modifying behavioral and environmental factors that make space for adequate and restful sleep.
Tips for cultivating sleep hygiene:
- Create and adhere to a schedule that reserves at least 7.5 hours of sleep nightly.
- When the duration of sleep drops below seven hours, and especially when it starts to move toward six and half hours or less, the prevalence of various disorders increases.
- Create a routine to prepare your body and mind for rest.
- The “warm bath effect” proposes that a warm shower or bath 1–8 hours before bed increases slow-wave sleep and non-REM memory consolidation and decreases REM sleep.
- Relax your mind by incorporating light reading, journaling, yoga, and/or meditation into your nightly routine.
- Sleep in a dark, cool environment.
- Maintaining a room temperature between 60–67°F is generally recommended to avoid disrupting the sleep stages. Excess heat exposure increases wakefulness and decreases slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep, while excess cold exposure stresses the cardiovascular system.
- Limit blue light exposure from your cell phone, television, or computer at bedtime.
- Blue light exposure before bedtime directly impacts our body’s natural production of the “sleep hormone” and powerful antioxidant, melatonin.
- Ensure appropriate sunlight exposure during the day.
- Consistent exposure to direct sunlight, specifically during morning hours, has been shown to effectively improve sleep quality.
While both are associated with a failure to get adequate sleep, insufficient sleep is distinguished from insomnia, which occurs in individuals who struggle to begin and/or maintain sleep despite having the opportunity to. Cultivating better sleep hygiene may improve sleep quality for both conditions, but insomnia may be a symptom of an underlying disorder and should be evaluated by a licensed healthcare provider.
Dr. Aviles is a naturopathic doctor at Whole Health Natural Family Medicine in Hamden, CT, where she specializes in women’s health and pediatrics. She has a special interest in the management of gynecologic, hormonal/endocrine, and mental health conditions, acute and chronic pediatric care, as well as chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high cholesterol.
Whole Health Natural Family Medicine, 203.288.8283, firstname.lastname@example.org