Are you getting enough sleep? There’s no simple answer for everyone. Although we all need sleep during every 24-hour period to stay healthy, the amount varies with each person.

American adults are sleeping about an hour less than they did 20 years ago. 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.

Health problems caused by too little sleep are more complex than feeling chronically tired the next day. Lack of sleep damages your health in the short term, such as the inattention that causes a car crash. Long-term damage comes from an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, depression, weight gain, and a reduced ability to fight infections, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sleep is essential for your body’s daily repair and restoration.

Good quality sleep improves health because it:

  • Improves 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 immune system functioning

You may want to discuss a possible sleep disorder with your doctor or a sleep specialist if you regularly have some of the following symptoms:

  • Unrefreshing sleep on a regular basis
  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate times
  • Loud snoring or pauses in breathing while sleeping
  • 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
  • Feeling like you could doze off while reading or watching television, riding in a car, in a meeting or after meals
  • In children, sleep deficiency may cause over-active or impulsive behavior, trouble paying attention, lack of motivation or poor grades

26 tips to help you get a good night’s sleep and have a more productive tomorrow.

Before going to bed:

  • Make sleep a conscious health priority. Resist putting work, household chores or a good book ahead of eight hours sleep each night.
  • Avoid napping during the day. Naps don’t provide the same benefits as night-time, restorative sleep for adults, like they do for children and teenagers. Naps cannot make up for not sleeping at night. However, napping is complex. An “emergency” nap can be a lifesaver when you’re too tired to continue the activity you’re involved with. Drowsy drivers should always pull over and try to nap.
  • Check your medications with your doctor and pharmacist to be sure they’re 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 on a very limited basis can help. But if insomnia is caused by other problems in your life, pills are not the answer. Lifestyle and behavioral changes make the largest and most lasting improvement in insomnia.
  • Avoid large meals, heavy or spicy foods within two hours of bedtime. A glass of milk or a light snack may help if you are hungry.
  • Avoid alcohol several hours before bed because it can interfere with the sleep cycle, causing you to wake up and not be able to get back to sleep.
  • Avoid stimulants like smoking and caffeine within two to eight hours before bed.
  • Spend time outside every day – the earlier in the day the better – to keep your circadian rhythms in sync.
  • Get physical exercise everyday – outdoors is best.
  • Fight after-dinner drowsiness by getting off the couch. Do something mildly stimulating to avoid falling asleep.
  • Take action to deal with anger or stress that accumulates during the day. Recurrent stress or worry can keep your brain from falling asleep. Try journaling or writing down your worries before bed.
  • Develop a sleep routine to signal your brain that it’s time to sleep. Winding down from your day can include a warm bath, reading, prayer, listening to music or changing into your pajamas.
  • 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 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. Staying up late or sleeping late disrupts your wake-sleep cycle (circadian rhythm). Our brains use circadian rhythm to tell our bodies to sleep or wake up. Never let sleep get squeezed out of your schedule.
  • Sleep on a supportive mattress, pillows and natural-fabric sheets, in a quiet, cool room.
  • Be sure you’re in total darkness to sleep. Remove anything that emits light such as LED lights on clocks, TVs and night lights. Blue light from electronic devices suppresses melatonin production. A dim red light is the best choice if you need a night light. Melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, is produced in total darkness. 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.
  • Make your bedroom as quiet as possible. 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. Keep work materials,  projects, computers and televisions out of the sleeping area.
  • Get out of bed and go to another room if you haven’t fallen asleep after 15 minutes. Do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. Never turn on an electronic device; keep lights very low.

Safe sleep tips for babies (from the American Academy of Pediatrics): 

  • Babies should not sleep in their parents’ bed. However, sleeping in the parents’ room, close to the parents’ bed, but in their own crib is recommended. Babies should have a separate sleeping surface designed for infants, ideally for the first year or at least for the first six months.
  • Use a firm sleep surface in a crib, bassinet or play yard that is approved by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Mattresses should fit snugly with no gaps or spaces between mattress and crib frame.
  • Place babies on their back every time they sleep for the first year of life. Side or stomach sleeping is not safe and not advised.
  • Do not allow soft objects, toys, loose bedding, blankets, pillows or crib-bumper pads in baby’s sleep area. They can cover the face, head or neck and cause suffocation, entrapment or strangulation.
  • Do not cover baby’s head and be sure that sleepwear does not over-heat the infant. Use a sleep sack or wearable blanket if extra warmth is needed.
  • Do not let a baby sleep in a carrier, sling, car seat or stroller because it increases the risk of suffocation.