Do you ever wonder how to get your best sleep? Why do young children wake up at the same time every morning, yet adults struggle to achieve that natural regulation (hello, snooze button!)? What factors and lifestyle choices affect our sleep as we age, and what adjustments can we make to increase our sleep quality? We all know sleep is important, but why is it important? What does getting “good sleep” look like? Join us as we dive into some excellent resources to answer these questions, and find yourself on the path to better sleep…and health!
The science of sleep
No surprise here, but sleep is critical to our bodies and minds performing well. Observation and science tell us that humans are born with the innate ability to self-regulate with biological cycles. Sleep-wake cycles are dictated by the circadian rhythm, the biological cycle of many processes that happen over a 24-hour time period.
The circadian rhythm is influenced by three major factors: light, time, and melatonin. Of these factors, light is the most significant pace-setter for the circadian rhythm, as humans have evolved to live by the rising and setting of the sun. In our modern existence, we’re bombarded with artificial light, which throws off our circadian rhythm and the production of melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that causes drowsiness and controls body temperature. The timed production of melatonin is critical to feeling sleepy at the appropriate time of day. When production is diminished, we feel wide awake late into the night and have trouble falling asleep.
Time is also an important influence on our sleep. Daily schedules, bedtime routines, and time spent sleeping are all important considerations for the health of our sleep (1).
These factors begin to explain why young children display natural sleep cycles more readily than adults. Kids tend to have less exposure to light emitted by electronics, a more predictable daily schedule, and a dialed in bedtime routine. Getting back to some of these basics could be the key to adults sleeping better–but why is sleep so crucial anyway?
Why sleep is so important
Though it’s unrealistic for adults to have the same sleep routines as young children, the majority of us could benefit from taking our sleep more seriously. Sleep has several important purposes, the first of which is restoration. During sleep, metabolic waste that’s accumulated in the brain during the day is cleared out through a detoxification process. Lack of sleep causes a build-up of these waste products over time that has been linked to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s (1).
Sleep is also critical for memory consolidation. This paves the way for storing long-term and emotional memories, as well as facts and figures. Metabolic health is also heavily influenced by sleep. Not getting enough sleep can predispose you to fat gain and muscle loss, while leading to insulin sensitivity and metabolic syndrome (1).
Once asleep, the body cycles through two types of sleep: slow wave sleep (deep sleep), and REM sleep. Each of these processes provide the body with different benefits, and both are integral to good sleep. The body self-regulates when it gets which type of sleep. This means you can’t affect the amounts of each type of sleep you experience; your body is smart enough to give itself what it needs (1).
Take a deeper dive into the science
Sleep is complex and requires many simultaneous processes to coexist. For a deeper dive into the science of sleep, check out this in-depth article from James Clear, human habits and self-improvement expert.
How much sleep do we really need?
The short answer: adults should aim to get 8 hours of sleep per night. What happens when you average less than 8 hours of sleep per night? Your brain greatly suffers.
A number of healthy adults who regularly slept an average of 7-8 hours per night participated in a sleep study. One group was made to stay up 3 days straight. Additional groups were made to sleep 4, 6, or 8 hours per night for two weeks. The group that was allowed to sleep 8 hours per night “displayed no cognitive decreases, attention lapses, or motor skill declines during the 14-day study. Meanwhile, the groups who received 4 hours and 6 hours of sleep steadily declined with each passing day. The four-hour group performed worst, but the six-hour group didn’t fare much better (2).”
Beyond the obvious benefit of sleeping 8 hours per night, the study found that sleep debt accumulates over time, as does the neurological cost of not getting enough sleep. Sleeping for 6 hours per night for two weeks puts your mental and physical performance at a level that’s equivalent to staying awake for 48 hours straight! Read that again. Many of us are more sleep-deprived than we realize (2).
If you don’t get enough sleep one night, it’s important to make it up the following night. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you’re operating at a fraction of your mental and physical capacity.
How to achieve better sleep
As we reference more of James Clear’s extensive writing on sleep, it’s apparent there are a lot of things we can do to set ourselves up for great sleep. When my clients mention they have insomnia, I always press further and ask follow up questions. More often that not, we uncover behavioral and lifestyle habits that are negatively impacting their sleep. Though there are several reasons for insomnia, many of us could stand to make changes that would likely result in better sleep.
Before relying on sleep aids to overcome poor sleep (unless advised and prescribed by a doctor), take a realistic inventory of the following factors and their impact on your sleep habits.
Natural sleep aids:
Exercise completed at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
Keeping the ambient room temperature between 65-70 degrees.
Sleeping in a quiet room, using white noise, or earplugs.
Being mindful of alcohol intake, which can delay REM sleep and leave you feeling unrested in the morning.
Behaviors to support good sleep:
Stick to a regular schedule–going to sleep and waking at the same time each day.
Develop a bedtime ritual that includes putting away electronic devices and screens. The blue wavelength of light from screens decreases melatonin production and tells your brain that it’s time to stay awake, rather than sleep. If you must be on screens close to bedtime, try dimming your screen and using blue light blocking glasses.
Use relaxation techniques to release stress like journaling, deep breathing, meditation, and exercise.
Use strategic naps if you’re not getting enough sleep at night. Napping in the early afternoon is the best way to incorporate naps into your sleep routine and create an opportunity for your body to make up for missed sleep at night.
Want to learn more?
For more short-and-sweet (and slightly science-y) information on making helpful changes to get better sleep, check out James Clear’s 3 Ways to Improve Your Sleep.
Author Elana Witt is a personal trainer at Hyatt Training. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.