We all occasionally miss getting enough sleep. No big deal, right? There’s always coffee to get us through our day. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sleep is important

Lack of adequate sleep damages your health, both in the short term – such as the inattention that causes a car crash – and through long-term health problems and weight gain. Sleep is essential for your body’s daily repair and restoration.

American adults are sleeping about an hour less than they did 20 years ago. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that, since the 1990s, the average adult only sleeps 6.8 hours per night. A similar Gallup Poll in 1974 showed adults averaged 7.9 hours.

Here’s how getting adequate sleep (length of time asleep as well as quality of sleep) can improve health:

  • Optimizes mental health, mood and motivation
  • Boosts ability to pay attention and make decisions
  • Enhances creativity
  • Improves productivity and problem-solving skills, affecting how you work, learn, react and get along with other people
  • Reduces risk of depression, suicide and risk-taking behavior
  • Reduces risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, obesity, kidney disease, diabetes and stroke
  • Improves the body’s ability to repair cells and tissues, and boosts muscle mass
  • Supports growth and development in children
  • Improves the functioning of your immune system

Even the loss of one or two hours of sleep for several nights impairs your ability to function. It’s equivalent to not sleeping at all for a day or two.

Inadequate sleep can cause microsleep – brief moments of sleep that occur when you’re normally awake. Most people are not aware they are experiencing microsleep. For example, have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered part of the trip? Been listening to someone speak but miss some information or feel like you don’t understand their point? You cannot control microsleep; it controls you.

Failing to get adequate sleep is so common that many people believe they can function just fine with limited sleep. Drowsy drivers usually feel capable of driving safely. But, drowsy driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. Drowsy drivers cause approximately 100,000 car accidents each year, resulting in about 1,500 deaths.

Lack of sleep affects us all – from assembly line workers and airline pilots, to surgeons and nuclear reactor technicians. We owe ourselves – and each other – a good night’s sleep, every night.

Top tips for good sleep

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, including REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. The deepest, most restorative sleep occurs during non-REM sleep cycles.

Pre-schoolers need about 12 hours of sleep a night; school-age children up to age 13 need 9 to 11 hours. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours. According to pediatrician Chad Rodgers, MD, “It is important to know that sleep cycles between “deep” sleep and lighter levels of sleep. It’s not unusual for children to cycle to a light-level of sleep and cry out, talk or even cry during sleep. They sometimes look like they are awake, but are at light levels of sleep. They can then go back to deep sleep. Although this can cause concern, it is normal,” he says.

Before going to bed:

  • Make it a conscious health priority to get adequate sleep – every night. Resist putting work, household chores or even a good book ahead of eight hours each night.
  • Avoid napping during the day if you have problems getting enough sleep. Napping doesn’t provide the same benefits as night-time sleep. It cannot make up for not sleeping at night. (Small children should take naps.) However, napping is complex. An “emergency” nap can be a life-saver when you’re too tired to continue the activity you’re involved with. Drowsy drivers should always pull over and try to nap for 20 minutes. Just don’t expect napping to ever compensate for a good night’s sleep.
  • Check your medications with your doctor and pharmacist to be sure they are not preventing restorative sleep.
  • Discuss pain solutions with your doctor if pain frequently disrupts sleep.
  • Discuss chronic insomnia solutions with your doctor. Using a sleeping pill for several weeks can help. But if insomnia is caused by other problems in your life, pills are not the answer.
  • Use sleeping pills only as a last resort and always with your doctor’s permission. Even then, use them only for a very limited, as-needed basis. Evidence shows that lifestyle and behavioral changes make the largest and most lasting difference when it comes to insomnia.
  • Avoid large meals, heavy or spicy foods within at least two hours before bedtime. A glass of milk or a light snack may help if you are hungry.
  • Avoid alcohol several hours before bed. Even though it may help you relax and fall asleep faster, alcohol interferes with the sleep cycle once you’re asleep.
  • Avoid stimulants like nicotine (from smoking or lozenges), and caffeine (coffee, tea, cola soft drinks and chocolate) within two to eight hours before bed.
  • Spend time outside every day – the earlier in the day the better. Exposing yourself to sunlight or other bright light early in the day helps keep your circadian rhythms in sync.
  • Get physical exercise everyday – outside is best.
  • Fight after-dinner drowsiness by getting off the couch. Do something mildly stimulating to avoid falling asleep such as washing the dishes or a load of clothes, calling a friend, or getting clothes ready for the next day. If you give in to drowsiness, you will likely wake up later in the night and not be able to get back to sleep.
  • Take action to deal with anger or stress issues during the day. Recurrent stress or worry can keep your brain from falling asleep. Try journaling or writing down your worries before bed. You may see recurring themes in your list of worries.
  • Develop a sleep routine; it signals your brain to let your body sleep. Winding down from your day can include a warm bath, reading, meditation or prayer, yoga or gentle stretching, listening to music or even changing to your sleep wear – whatever triggers your brain that it’s time to sleep.
  • Start your sleep routine about an hour before bed. Avoid bright lights and strenuous exercise; turn off cell phones and computers. The type of blue wavelength light these devices emit activates the brain and makes it harder to fall asleep.

When it’s time for bed:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on your days off or on vacation. Staying up late or sleeping late disrupts your sleep-wake rhythm (circadian rhythm). Our brains use this rhythm to tell our bodies to sleep or wake up.
  • Stick to your sleep schedule, even when you get extra busy. Never let sleep be the activity that gets squeezed out of your schedule.
  • Sleep on a supportive mattress and pillows, in a quiet, cool room. If your mattress is older than the average life-expectancy of 10 years, it’s probably time for a new one.
  • Be sure there’s total darkness in the sleeping room. This is important because melatonin is produced in total darkness. Melatonin regulates the sleep and wake cycles. The longer you’re in total darkness, the more melatonin your body produces. Melatonin’s many health benefits include the ability to destroy free radicals, suppress the development of breast cancer and enhance the immune system. Black-out shades on your windows or an eye mask may help. Remove anything that emits light such as LED lights on clocks, TVs and night lights. Blue wavelength light from electronic devices also suppresses melatonin production. A dim red light is the best choice if you need a night light.
  • Try using a “white noise” machine, a fan, a recording of soothing sounds or ear plugs. Setting your radio between stations, on low volume, also generates “white noise.”
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, remove it from your bedroom. That may mean putting your alarm clock in another room. Keep work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping area.
  • Get out of bed and go to another room if you haven’t fallen asleep after about 15 minutes. Do something relaxing until you feel sleepy, such as deep and rhythmic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualizing a beautiful, restful, peaceful place. Concentrate only on how relaxing this place or activity makes you feel. Never turn on an electronic device and keep lights very low.

If you fall asleep easily but wake up during the night:

  • Continue your sleep routine to trigger sleep. Stay in bed in a relaxed position, keep lights off and keep your brain calm. The worst thing is to worry about why you’re awake. Instead, practice deep, rhythm breathing; prayer or meditation; even counting sheep is better than worrying.
  • Focus just on relaxing, not on getting back to sleep. Relaxation provides some help for your body to make repairs.
  • Try an herbal supplement that promotes sleep. Caffeine-free herbs such as lemon balm or chamomile, brewed into tea, are generally harmless. Melatonin and valerian are considered safe and effective. Check with your doctor to be sure these are safe for your individual situation.

Symptoms of sleep deficiency

The problems that are caused by inadequate sleep may not be obvious to you. Besides feeling sleepy or chronically tired in the mornings and during the day, sleep deficiencies can show up as feeling like you could doze off while:

  • Reading or watching television
  • Riding in a car
  • Sitting in traffic
  • Sitting still in a public place such as a meeting or movie theatre
  • After meals
  • In children, sleep deficiency may result in over-active or impulsive behavior, trouble paying attention, lack of motivation or poor grades.

You may have a sleep disorder if you regularly have these symptoms:

  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate times
  • Loud snoring and pauses in breathing
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up and not being able to go back to sleep
  • Morning headaches
  • Crawling sensations in your legs or arms at night
  • Inability to move while falling asleep or waking up
  • Physically acting out dreams during sleep

Discuss these symptoms with your doctor and ask if you need to see a sleep specialist or have a sleep study.

In future articles we’ll explain the complex pros and cons of napping as well as the most common sleep disorders including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, seasonal affective disorder and restless legs syndrome.

Sleep Is Connected To Weight Gain

If you are very sleep-deprived, you may be able to lose weight by sleeping seven to eight hours every night. If you’re used to sleeping about five hours a night and you increase that to seven or eight, you’ll likely lose weight, according to new research. However, if you’re used to sleeping seven hours and increase to eight, it is unlikely to make a difference in your weight.

There are four ways that sleep-deprived people can gain weight.

  • Need an energy boost. If you are sleepy, you’ll likely have low energy. You reach for a comfort-food snack or a coffee with creamer and a doughnut. Sleep deprivation also increases your preference for high-calorie foods. Poor food choices coupled with a lack of exercise (because you’re too tired to exercise) combine to create excess pounds.
  • Poorly functioning metabolism. Lack of sleep increases the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. Your body tries to produce more serotonin to reduce stress. High-calorie/high-fat foods will increase serotonin, and your body craves them. Lack of sleep robs you of willpower to resist high-calorie/fat foods.
  • Hormones out of balance. When two, normally occurring hormones – leptin and ghrelin – are unbalanced, weight gain can result. Ghrelin signals us to eat more and leptin signals us to stop eating. Without enough sleep, our bodies produce more ghrelin (so we eat more) and less leptin (fewer signals to stop eating).
  • Length and timing of sleep periods. Several studies show a weight gain in adults who sleep more than nine hours a night. Sleeping less than five hours but more than nine hours per night is the danger zone for weight gain. Also, when the timing of sleep periods was studied, researchers found that people who ate after 8 p.m., along with staying up late and sleeping late in the morning, consumed 250-300 more calories a day than the control group. They also made less-nutritional food choices and had higher BMIs. Just 250 calories a day adds up to a two-pound weight gain per month.