How did you sleep last night? Forty-five percent of Americans reported that poor-quality sleep or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities, according to the 2014 National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Health Index. As of 2006, between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. Americans sleep an average of seven and a half hours a night. Seven to nine hours of sleep is generally recommended, with some experts recommending at least eight. One-third of Americans report their sleep quality as poor or only fair. This can leave many feeling tired, groggy and irritable and can lead to mood disorders such as depression. It can also contribute to poor work performance, such as difficulty with concentration or poor information retention. Accidents or injuries are also more likely to happen after a bad night’s sleep. Clearly, sleep affects quality of life. Most importantly, sleep can have a profound effect on overall physical health. Inadequate sleep increases the risk for weight gain and obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, as well as all-cause mortality. It is not entirely clear why, but part of the reason may be that it is difficult to make good food choices with chronic poor sleep. When we sleep well, we naturally tend to eat more vegetables, we have fewer cravings, and our appetite and metabolism are better regulated. When we exercise, our performance is increased and muscle recovery time is improved with good sleep. This is why nutrition is never the only answer, and sleep as well as many other factors contribute to overall health.

Does it pertain to you?

While not everyone has a sleep disorder, everyone needs a good night’s rest, so this article pertains to anyone who sleeps. You will know you have difficulty with sleep if you have one or more of the following symptoms: difficulty falling or staying asleep; excessive daytime sleepiness; or abnormal movements, behaviors, or sensations during sleep. The good news is, there are simple steps you can take to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Light

Getting adequate natural bright light during the day and dim light at night is important for setting the circadian rhythm. It improves both the quantity and quality of sleep. Get a minimum of a half hour of natural light per day. Going for a brisk walk outside either before work or during a lunch break is a pleasant way to do it. Even just sitting outside at lunch works. At the same time, avoiding bright light and, especially, blue light emitted by screens at night is important for proper melatonin production, which makes us feel sleepy. Keep lights in your house dim at night, or for as long as possible before bed, and avoid screens at night, or as long before bedtime as possible. This includes TVs, computers and phones, to name a few. If you must be in front of a screen, download an application like f.lux, which reduces blue-light emission.

Timing

Set a bedtime and stick to it. Bedtimes are for everyone, not just children. Set the alarm for at least eight hours before you need to wake up. This will make sure you at least get the ideal number of hours of zzzz’s. Synchronize sleep with the cycle of the sun as much as possible. This is easier for those who work outside, and harder for those who work indoors. Night owls, even if they get the same amount of sleep as someone who wakes up early, have a higher risk of disease. Weekend sleep warriors are not completely out of the woods, either. You are better off with eight hours of sleep every night than 12 hours on weekends, even if this increases your total sleep hours.



Caffeine

Avoid caffeine after noon. Some people are more sensitive than others, so monitor how you feel; you may need even more time for it to clear. If you are used to a cup in the afternoon, try decaf coffee or an herbal coffee, which have similar flavors and aromas without the caffeine. Decaf, however, still does contain a small amount of caffeine. Other foods and beverages that contain caffeine include chocolate, tea and kombucha.

Optimize your sleep environment

Maintaining the right conditions in your bedroom can make a world of difference. Make sure the room is dark. If street lights are an issue, invest in blackout curtains. Keep as many electronics as possible out of the room that may emit small amounts of light. Having a quiet room is also helpful. White noise machines are an option for noisy situations that cannot be solved, such as from traffic. Temperature is also a factor. While taking a hot shower or bath before bed can help promote relaxation, sleeping in a room that is too warm can actually impede restful sleep. Keep the room slightly cool. Last but not least, keeping a comfortable mattress and a pleasing and restful decor certainly does not hurt.

Food

While eating too late can negatively affect sleep quality, choosing certain foods over others can help promote sleep. Eating more carbohydrates and fewer proteins at dinner, for example, can help promote sleepiness.

Relax

While this is not as easy as it sounds, especially in today’s high-paced environment, there are steps to take to help promote relaxation. Any kind of meditation practice can be helpful, and yoga nidra in particular is designed to help promote sleep. Reading a book, getting a massage, taking a warm bath or shower, stretching, listening to relaxing music, and doing deep breathing exercises or visualizations are all great options. If one does not help, try another until you find what is right for you.

Last but not least, make sure to rule out a sleep disorder if you have symptoms. While the suggestions above can help anyone improve sleep, it is important to be treated for serious sleep and/or breathing issues if you have them. Again, if we do not sleep well or long enough, our emotional, mental and physical health suffer. Luckily, there are simple steps we can take to get a better night’s sleep. You will see immediate benefits in your mood and performance, and you can rest assured that your body is thanking you, too.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.