The Importance of Sleep and How to Get Your ZZZs
Sleep is one of the body’s most impressive superpowers. Sleeping well leaves people feeling refreshed and productive. Sleeping poorly leads to fatigue, decreased concentration, and difficulty dealing with stress and crises.
Sleep is a complex biological phenomenon. To understand how to improve sleep, it’s important to learn some sleep basics.
The Circadian Rhythm
Everyone has an internal clock that tells them when to sleep and when to wake. It’s called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that controls the complex elements that influence wakefulness and drowsiness.
The circadian rhythm is not immune to outside influence. Factors in the environment, like light and temperature, interact with the body’s natural processes, affecting the hormone production that regulates sleep.
One person’s circadian rhythm can be quite different from another’s, running either longer or shorter. While likely determined at least in part by genetics, researchers are still exploring circadian rhythms and how they vary.
What Happens During Sleep?
As the body sleeps, it essentially does maintenance. Some of the maintenance is physical, some is emotional.
The body goes to work repairing blood vessels and tissue during sleep, balancing hormones, stimulating growth in children, even cleansing and supporting healthy nerve cells in the brain. A brain that gets enough sleep is far better equipped to deal with stress when awake.
People need to get enough of two kinds of sleep—REM and non-REM. REM sleep is the state in which dreaming occurs, non-REM is deep sleep. The two types cycle throughout the night.
Health Effects of Insufficient Sleep
Sleep deprivation is not just an acute disorder resulting from no sleep for a period of time. It is also the slow process of chronically getting not quite enough sleep each night.
Sleep deficiency occurs when the quality of sleep suffers. Restlessness or frequent waking at night, or sleeping at the wrong time of day for your body rhythms can contribute to sleep deficiency.
Insomnia is a term that refers to having trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some people have brief bouts of insomnia, for others, it becomes a chronic condition.
Sleep deprivation and deficiency have been linked to adverse effects on the immune and cardiovascular systems, and to obesity and diabetes. Psychological effects include irritability, lack of focus, and depression.
Lack of sleep also contributes to poor reaction time, which can lead to serious accidents.
5 Ways to Improve Sleep
Both the quality and quantity of sleep can be improved. The first step is to see a doctor to rule out medical conditions like sleep apnea that can disrupt sleep. Once that’s established, here are some ways to combat insomnia.
1. Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene refers to personal habits that can affect the duration and quality of sleep. Good sleep hygiene includes getting adequate exercise and resisting naps if possible during the day. In the evening, stay away from large meals, alcohol, and caffeine.
Turning off electronics is an important step as bedtime approaches. Creating a tranquil, dark space for sleep allows the body to relax and stay asleep. Perhaps the most important step in improving sleep hygiene is staying on a consistent schedule.
A good sleep hygiene routine often starts with a sleep journal so areas that need improvement can be identified and addressed consistently.
2. CBD Supplements
Everyone has heard of CBD by now. But a lot of people don’t know what CBD does or how to use it. CBD oil, or Hemp oil, is not marijuana and does not get people “high”.
CBD interacts with the body’s own endocannabinoid system (ECS) which naturally produces molecules similar to those found in cannabinoids.
It is that interaction that experts believe allows CBD to boost the ECS and improve a variety of balances within the body. One of the results can be more and higher quality sleep. CBD is still being extensively researched and more benefits are being identified.
Pregnant and nursing women should check with their doctor before using CBD supplements.
Melatonin is a hormone that everyone’s body produces naturally. Production increases in the evening and allows people to relax and prepare for sleep. A good sleep hygiene routine assists the body in producing maximum melatonin.
But it isn’t always enough. A melatonin supplement is good for occasional bouts of insomnia but is a short term strategy and not a good option for everybody. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take melatonin. Always check with your doctor before beginning any use of melatonin.
4. Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation strategies can be used by anyone, virtually anywhere, with examples widely available for free. The key for use in improving sleep is trying a variety of methods to discover which works for the individual.
Techniques include muscle relaxation and mindfulness practice. Mindfulness can include breathing techniques and guided imagery designed to be calming and help your body and mind relax to promote sleep.
Some people find that white noise, or background noise, facilitates relaxation and sleep. There are readily available background noises including traditional white noise; beach, river, or rain noise; and forest or other nature noises.
A part of good sleep hygiene, time outdoors deserves its own section. There is benefit in both simply being outside, and in getting some good exercise while out there. Research shows that exercise increases deep sleep. To get the most benefit, try moderate-intensity cardio.
Exercising too late in the day can be counter-productive and leave some people wide awake. A better option is to plan exercise early in the day so it doesn’t end up sabotaging other sleep hygiene routines.
Getting outside is also beneficial all on its own. The bright natural light of the outdoors, especially on a sunny day, helps keep the circadian rhythm balanced. Prolonged exposure to indoor light that is not reflective of outdoor conditions can throw that balance off. Heading outdoors can help the body reset and be ready to sleep when the sun goes down.