Kelley Vargo by Kelley Vargo

Sleep is a critical part of the foundation for health and wellness. As busy as we are, it isn’t a surprise that sleep is usually the first pillar of the foundation to give. Unfortunately, skimping on sleep can have a detrimental impact on our health. Consistent loss of sleep can increase one’s risk for obesity and weight gain. That’s because lack of sleep influences the body’s hormonal responses, some of which are decreased insulin sensitivity, increased ghrelin (the hormone that says eat more), increased cortisol and overall increase in appetite. A recent study found that women were more likely than men to gain weight from sleep deprivation due to “reduced dietary restraint.”From a physiological perspective, lack of sleep literally changes the configuration of our brains, changing the structure of excitatory synapses, which in turn affect memory and cognitive functions.The bottom line: We need sufficient sleep to optimize health, body and brain.

Like nutrition and exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all number for the hours of sleep each of us needs. The ideal number varies according to age, gender and lifestyle.It is recommended that adults get an average of seven to eight hours of sleep a night; this does not, however, account for “sleep debt”–the number of hours we are lacking in sleep. So what can you to do optimize your sleep and find that magic number? Modify your current behaviors to create the optimal sleep environment. Here are five actions you can take to improve your quality of sleep.

1. Turn off the technology: The age of smartphones and tablets has us more connected than ever before. Like many people, I use my smartphone for my alarm clock, which means the device is only an arm’s length away from my bed. But I do have a rule: no iPad, computer or Tweeting in bed. It isn’t unheard of to hear of people spending hours in the evening scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, wasting precious hours that could be spend rejuvenating the body and the mind. Research shows that smartphone use for work at night coupled with disrupted sleep results in a lack of engagement the next day.Save Facebook, emails and Twitter for the daytime hours and don’t let them creep into your bedroom.

2. Turn off the TV: The bedroom is a place to rest and restore. Having a television in the room creates another opportunity to be distracted. One study found that watching TV was the most frequent activity people did before bed, keeping them from going to bed later than they had intended, also known as bedtime procrastination.  The simplest way to minimize this is to remove the TV from the bedroom. Don’t want to miss your favorite late-night show? Thanks to DVRs, Netflix and HuLu, we hardly have a reason to stay up past 10pm to catch our favorite shows.

3. Quiet down before bed: Create a ritual that programs both the body and the mind to relax. Whether it’s reading a book or taking a hot bath or shower, make it a habit to slow down before hopping under the covers. Practice deep breathing or meditation to help clear the mind and reduce stress levels. The last thing you want to do before crawling into bed is to participate in a stressful call, conversation or event.

4. Limit caffeine: Although caffeine can feel like our best friend in the morning, it can be our worst enemy in the evening. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases awareness and can ward off sleepiness, which is the last thing you want at bedtime. To optimize your sleep, avoid caffeine consumption at least six hours before bed.

5. Schedule your bedtime: Just as we schedule just about everything else in life, we should schedule sleep as well. Setting a scheduled time for bed forces us to go to bed at a decent time. Procrastinating sleep is like procrastinating on that exercise program or nutrition plan—the detrimental effects are cumulative. Set a goal for yourself: If you know you have to be up by 6 A.M. for work, make a point to be under the sheets between 10 and 11 P.M. Pay attention to what you find yourself doing in the hour closest to bed and you might get much more sleep than you thought possible.

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