Simply put, good sleep equals good health. Theories about diet and exercise may vary, but when it comes to our overall well-being, researchers agree that good sleep habits are essential. Sleep affects everything from mental alertness to memory, mood, and even appetite regulation. And yet, unfortunately, sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice when it comes to our busy, hectic, modern lives. In fact, according to the CDC, 1 in 3 American adults is suffering from some form of sleep deprivation, with nearly 9 million taking a form of prescription sleep aid. This doesn’t include the even larger number of people who turn to OTC sleep medications to deal with their sleep issues.
One of the main problems with sleep aids and remedies is that they don’t always work as well as advertised, with the result that many people still don’t feel more rested. While prescription drugs and OTC sleep medications can be helpful in certain situations, they also have their liabilities and side effects. For this reason, most sleep experts agree that sleep drugs are limited in the extent of their ability to provide a long-term solution. These drugs are also easily prone to misuse.
Of course, it’s not just insomnia to blame for lack of sleep. Many of us simply go to bed later than we should, spending hours scrolling through social media or bingeing Netflix. We may not be aware of the effects of sleep deprivation, or simply have developed bad habits over the years. But what exactly are the effects of a lack of sleep long-term?
Sleep is not only a time for rest, but it’s also essential for our bodies to be able to repair themselves properly. While we slumber, our body performs a lot of important functions. For example:
- Rebuilding muscle tissue
- Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, leading to better heart health
- Reducing stress and inflammation
- Processing our anxiety and emotions
- Regulating our metabolism and immune system
Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount you actually get. With sleep deprivation at an all-time high, the cumulative effect of sleep debt can cause some significant health problems, including:
- Memory loss
- Weakened immune system
- Impaired brain activity and motor skills
- Premature aging
- Increased risk of health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease
With sleep deprivation, your eating habits are also adversely affected, increasing your desire for sugary foods that can lead to overeating and weight gain. A sustained sense of fatigue can also lead to a lesser motivation to exercise. The result? A very unhealthy cycle that revolves around continued lack of rest.
How Much Sleep Do We Need For Our Health?
So how much sleep do you really need? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for ages! The answer is that the amount of sleep needed does vary somewhat for each individual, but not as much as people think it does. The primary factor in determining how much sleep your body needs is age.
Here are the recommended sleep times for different age groups, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infant (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddler (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschool (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
- School-age (6-13 years): 9-11 hours
- Teen (14-17 years): 8-10 hours
- Young adult (18-25 years): 7-9 hours
- Adult (26-64 years): 7-9 hours
- Older adult (65+ years): 7-8 hours
Your sleep needs may vary within that 7-9 hour window, but you should still be getting 7 hours at a minimum. To determine your personal sleep target, you should consider aspects like your health, daily activities, and how you respond to less sleep. For example, do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day? Do you have a high level of energy expenditure doing work or exercise? Do you have a history of sleep issues? Once you have determined how much sleep you need to wake up feeling truly rested, incorporate that into your lifestyle.
Can you train yourself to need less sleep?
While it’s true that infants and children need a lot more sleep than adults, that doesn’t mean that adults should take their sleep for granted. There is a common misconception that you can train yourself to need fewer than 7 hours of sleep each night. However, research shows that this is a myth. Instead, people who sleep for 6 hours or fewer each night may simply have become used to the negative effects of sleep deprivation. This won’t protect them from long-term consequences to their health.
Why Can’t We Sleep?
So, why can’t we sleep? Some people do suffer from clinically-diagnosed sleep disorders, but a lot of our sleep problem in America boils down to changes in our modern lifestyle that have negative repercussions on our ability to get enough rest. As a society, we’re working longer hours, driving longer commutes, and are generally busier than ever. This leaves less time for sleep because you’ve still got to help the kids with their homework, pay your bills, clean the house, and maybe even have an adult conversation at some point. With all those things on the table, sleep tends to be the odd man out. It’s also hard to rest when you stay stressed, and our addiction to our screens isn’t helping us rest, either. Many people stay up late entertaining themselves on electronic devices, and research suggests that blue light from these devices may interfere with the body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
But the good news is this: you can improve your overall health and optimize your well-being by choosing to prioritize sleep as a non-negotiable daily habit. And that all starts by making sure you get enough hours of quality slumber each night.
Keep a Sleep Diary
If you’re facing sleep problems or just want to increase your overall sleep quality, sleep specialists recommend keeping a sleep diary or log. A sleep diary not only records how well you slept (or not) during the night, but it also keeps track of what time you went to bed, your pre-sleep routine, and how you felt when you woke up. By keeping and paying attention to your sleep diary, you’ll gain a clearer understanding of your daily sleep patterns and any recurring problems. More importantly, it will also help you recognize what you might need to change so you can get a better night’s sleep!
If you’re interested in beginning a sleep diary, the National Sleep Foundation offers a free, downloadable 7-day journal.
Need More Help Getting to Sleep and Getting the Right Kind of Sleep?
Need more tips on how you can start getting your best sleep now? Check out these blog posts for some of our top sleep tips and ideas: