On average Americans sleep about 6.8 hours a day. That’s an hour less than in 1942 (1). Losing sleep is depressing and ends up causing a malaise of sleep deprivation in the general populace.
Out of all the things we can do to promote a healthy lifestyle, good quality sleep is often the first thing to be overlooked or most likely to suffer as a result of our busy schedules, jobs, families, or even hobbies.
However, with a dash of discipline and some key knowledge on why sleep is important for your health and how it works, you can make a few changes to help improve the quality of your health.
Table of Contents
Sleep is Crucial for Your Health
It seems that out of all the competing theories on why sleep evolved, three broad ones seem to make the most sense at this time(3):
- Cellular restoration
- Energy conservation
- The consolidation of memory and learning
A lot of sleep science has investigated the memory aspect. Sleep, it seems, works similar to the way a computer defragments its memory. By breaking down the memory into more organized bits, which saves space and makes the system run more efficiently.
Sleep researchers have found that sleep is vital for transforming and transferring short-term memories over to long-term memory storage. It is a mechanism for the neuronal network to shave back excess ‘noise’ and thereby reinforces those neuronal pathways for when we are awake (3). This is where using sleep to improve and master skills and movements is the very best tool we can use for such purposes.
More sleep correlates to better problem-solving and critical thinking in humans and other mammals. Deficient sleep affects the learning of certain higher-thinking tasks and retention of memories (3). This is the reason teachers continually advise their students not to cram late into the night before a test. The chances of all that information being retained is significantly reduced by not getting a good night’s rest.
Sleep deprivation is no joke. Many studies have found that high levels of sleep deprivation is equivalent to the slowed responses of a drunk driver- who’s abilities are impaired. It also seems to affect certain parts of the brain more than others (3).
For instance, motor control in a 17-year old student was not found to be affected, even after ten days of not sleeping he was still able to beat a non-sleep deprived interviewer at a game of pinball. However, his memory skills and the ability to concentrate and make decisions were severely hampered. Combine that with moodiness, hallucinations (in his case at least) and paranoia, and sleep deprivation begins to sound similar to a certain recreational drug. (3)
One aspect of sleep deprivation is that even while one is awake, different groups of neurons will go into a sleep cycle. This shows us how the function of pruning the ‘noise’ is necessary to prevent over-stimulation of neurons. It also explains a big part of why the brains functionality is so impaired by a lack of sleep. (3)
Age Effects Sleep Patterns
While we may be genetically inclined towards our preferences for mornings or nights, age can slowly change our sleep patterns-from being a night owl to a morning lark. As we get older after the teenage years, we slowly begin to require less sleep (situational variations notwithstanding) So even if you are a night owl now, you may eventually become an early riser.(2).
The main reason people start to ‘require’ less sleep is that the circadian sleep cycle narrows with age (3). This means we literally become morning people whether we were before or not. It also means because of sleep disruptions, naps become a necessity if we are to get the adequate range of sleep hours we need in a day. On average the elderly need about 7 ½ hours of sleep.(3).
Quality light also becomes important to the elderly, more so than that of younger people. As dementia affects more than 50% of people over the age of 85, studies have found that having the appropriate blue light at the right hours (meaning being outside in the morning) can actually help slow the onset of cognitive decline and dementia, which probably corresponds to the fact that better sleep was obtained. (3).
A lot of the time, people just can’t sleep. Either it is hard to fall asleep (3), or often wakes up throughout the night at a regular frequency (3) or wakes up really, really early no matter when sleep begins (3). This can easily lead to a sleep deficiency.
One of the surprising findings of sleep science, however, is that much of what insomniacs perceive as a “lack of sleep” is actually all in their heads. Because they are stressed about not being able to sleep, they incorrectly believe that their sleep time is less than what it actually was. (2).
The mind becomes a very powerful tool for insomniacs to utilize. If you think about not being able to fall asleep or are unable to return to sleep and consistently worry about the coming of dawn, your mind is clearly not in a relaxed state. Sleep is the most relaxed state we can be in. Getting into a relaxed state of mind can help with insomnia.
This is where some form of meditation is especially helpful. As an overactive mind is often a problem for individuals who suffer from insomnia, finding ways to quiet the mind can be a very effective prescription for improving night routines and sleep quality. Counting sheep in your head is actually a form of meditation.
Habitual long-term insomnia is perhaps a problem of being more sensitive to sleep than the average person. This means that the problems and solutions that everyone can use to improve their sleep is especially important for the insomniac.
As with many problems, bad sleep routines can be hard to break. But once bad habits are changed for good habits, quality sleep will ensue, which will make it easier and easier to go to bed and fall asleep as time goes on.
Accepting the problem instead of fighting it can help relieve tension and allow for sleep. If you can’t sleep, try reading or doing something that will calm the mind.
Set the Ambience for Relaxation and Sleep
Today, many of our bedrooms have become a place of high-energetics. Televisions, laptops, and our cell phones cohabitate in these rooms with us. This is a huge problem for our brains. Not only do all these electronics spew blue light out at an astounding level that disrupts our melatonin production but the room itself becomes an extension of the family room (or living room or wherever you hang out regularly in your home).
As highly adaptable animals, we will become evolved to any situation we continue to impress on our bodies. If your bedroom (especially the bed) are used for other activities besides sex and rest, the brain will lose the clue that being in that place means lights out.
Make the bedroom quiet and comfortable and remove all distractions like listening to computers, television, and your cell phone so your brain and body will know that you are there to sleep. Removing these distractions has shown effective in helping people to fall asleep faster and to stay asleep longer and to sleep more soundly.
Change Your Bedtime Routine
In the two hours before bed, there are some things you should avoid or change in order to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Here is a list of things to avoid before bed:
- Consuming tobacco or alcohol before bed.
- Consuming caffeine
- Using overstimulating electronic devices- cell phones, video games, television, computers, etc.
- Staying up late and keeping an inconsistent bedtime schedule
Herbs can also help promote good sleep, especially for anyone suffering from chronic insomnia or those who suffer from anxiety or overactive nerves.
Different herbs help with different aspects of sleep. Some will help you fall asleep easier and faster, while others may help you sleep more soundly. Some allow the mind to relax better, while others may be working on the neurotransmitters. Experiment to find what works best for you:
This Ayurvedic herb is a powerful adaptogen that has long been recognized for its ability to help the body deal with stress. A recent study on sleep-deprived mice showed that the root extract of this herb-induced sleep-promoting effects by altering brain chemicals (GABAergic modulation). Dr. Aviva Romm refers to Ashwagandha as specially indicated for people who are “wired and tired.” Along with calming the nervous system, Ashwagandha is often used in the treatment of fatigue- it is a nourishing tonic, which helps the body back to its natural state of energy.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Albizia is known as the “Tree of Happiness.” It has long been appreciated for its calming and mood enhancing effects. When it comes to sleep, Albizia is a good ally to help ease the mind and create a state of relaxation. In studies, it has been shown to have sedative effects, and there is also some evidence that it may be helpful in the treatment of insomnia.
Ziziphus is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine in the treatment of insomnia. In fact, some studies done on this herb are referenced to help identify other plant medicines that might have similar phytochemical properties that can aid in sleep. The sedative properties of this herb are believed to be a product of the high concentrations of jujubesides (a type of triterpenoid saponin) found in the plant. Studies indicate that this herb can be helpful in sustaining REM cycles (deep sleep).
Other helpful sleep herbs include:
- California Poppy
- Kava Kava
- Passion Flower
Don’t Forget to Sleep!
Hopefully, this has opened your eyes to the importance of a getting a good night’s sleep. It’s funny to think that by optimizing the quality of the time we spend unconscious will give our conscious states the greatest platform on which to function.
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