Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

When we are asked to reflect on or identify what “health” is or what it means to “be healthy,” that definition often involves body weight, body mass index (BMI), exercise and nutrition. In reality, “being healthy” might best be measured by joyful movements, balanced nutrition, stress management, social connectedness and—of critical importance—quality sleep. Sleep is essential for mental and physical health and is something we can’t afford to limit.

According to the American Sleep Association, sleep issues and sleepiness are a top health concern in our society. Statistics indicate that:

  • 50-70 million American adults suffer from some type of sleep disorder
  • 9% of American adults reported falling asleep during the day (unintentionally)
  • 37% of 20- to 39-year-olds report short sleep duration, while 40% of 40- to 59-year-olds report short sleep duration
  • 3% of adults report less than 7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period (even 30 minutes less than the minimum carries consequences)

Adults need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep each night, yet more than one-third of the population does not get the minimum number of recommended hours.

Consequences of Inadequate Quality Sleep

Inadequate sleep results in varied and full-body consequences. When sleep quality and duration are poor, individuals tend to have less energy, experience less self-regulatory control, develop an increased craving for sweet, salty, and starchy foods, and have higher levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and lower levels of leptin (appetite-control hormone). Further, there’s a 50% higher risk for obesity if you get fewer than five hours of sleep each night. Other negative effects include immune system deficiencies, increased blood pressure, increased risk for heart disease, increased risk of developing depression and anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness and an inability to focus.

In short, experiencing sleep deprivation and trying to work, live and function in a sleep-deprived state has significant consequences on long-term health. Sleep fitness and hygiene are just as important as physical fitness and health.

“The statistics are real and necessary to wake us up to the importance of sleep,” says Beverly Hosford, author of Sleep Soundly, a five-week sleep program. “However, stressing about sleep can affect the timing and quality of sleep, so starting with stress reduction is often a great first step. What we do during the day impacts the night. Closing your eyes and noticing your breath right now can make a difference.”

How to Build Better Sleep Habits

Similar to developing physical fitness, sleep fitness takes effort and the implementation of small changes in daily behaviors to promote and support better sleep. Before change can occur, you have to raise your level of awareness, and the best place to begin is by examining and tracking your sleep habits throughout the week. Observe such things as:

  • What you do before bed (read, watch TV, scroll social media, etc.)
  • What time you turn the lights out
  • What time you rise
  • Caffeine and alcohol intake
  • What time you eat dinner
  • The temperature of your room
  • The type of light you’re exposed to before bed
  • Your energy levels throughout the day
  • How many hours of sleep you think you get each night

By journaling your observations, you are more likely to discover a pattern of behavior and make connections between the quality of your sleep and the behaviors you engage in. Once you have an idea of what your sleep ritual, routine, and contributing (or detracting) behaviors are, you can refine your habits to promote better quality and more restorative sleep.

“Choose one habit that you are ready to change and journal or home in on it for a week,” urges Hosford. “Then, go to the next one that you can shift within your lifestyle. The best changes to make are the ones you are ready for.” 

Make Small Changes

No two people need the same things to sleep well; building habits for healthier sleep—such as regular physical activity and good nutrition—is highly personal and should be tailored to your needs and goals.

Here are a few strategies to consider that will give your sleep experience a boost:

  • Create a calming and consistent nighttime routine that allows for 30 minutes of “winding down” time. This means avoiding bringing your laptop or phone to bed (avoid exposure to screens and blue light in general). Dim the lights as bright lights can hinder melatonin production. Test methods of relaxation to see what works best—you might try reading, bedtime yoga, a hot bath, meditation or mindful breathing.
  • Be physically active. Exercise has been shown to support improved sleep so commit to daily physical activity.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption as it will disrupt sleep later in the night.
  • Reduce caffeine intake in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine is a natural stimulant and can keep you wired for hours after consumption.
  • Avoid eating a large meal too close to bedtime, as doing so may cause discomfort.
  • Create consistency in your bedtime and rising time. Make an effort to go to bed at the same time and rise at the same time. As tempting as it is to sleep in on the weekends or the days we have off from work, doing so will disrupt your sleep pattern.
  • Try to be exposed to natural light early in the day. Sunlight helps to regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
  • Invest in a comfortable pillow and mattress that offers full-body support.
  • Block out light and reduce screen time before bed. 
  • Some find it easier to sleep with “white noise” such as a fan or portable machine.

“Many people know what to change and just need support and reassurance around making those alterations,” explains Hosford. “Identify a friend, partner or support group (SleepFitness is one on Facebook) to encourage you as you incorporate new behaviors. This can make the journey smoother and more successful. Also, reframing the change to think about what you are adding in (bedtime routine, sound machine) instead of what you are taking away (TV, checking email) can fuel motivation and positive feelings.”

Practicing sound and consistent sleep hygiene will not always resolve sleep concerns. If you experience chronic fatigue, consistently poor sleep or any physical ailments that may be related to lack of sleep, it’s important to seek the counsel of a sleep specialist and/or your primary care provider, as sleep disorders need specific attention to be resolved.

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