I started having sleep issues in graduate school. I had an ambitious course load, I was working on my master’s thesis and I was trying to lead a normal life and get daily exercise on top of that. I’d work on the laptop until midnight or so and then get out of bed some mornings at 5 o’clock. The little sleep I got wasn’t even restful. I started grinding my teeth, which led to cracked molars and a broken crown and then a stiff neck and headaches. I’d dream about schoolwork and wake up chronically exhausted.
After I graduated, these habits continued. I was working for a global company, so emails would come in from China or Europe 24 hours a day. Even if it was midnight for me, if I heard that little “ding,” I’d pick up the phone.
I spent thousands of dollars repairing the molar and crown, buying bite guards, doing massage therapy for my neck and seeing specialists. It affected my lifestyle in every capacity. I ran out of energy to exercise. I was taking nearly six espressos a day, and between those, I craved sugar. This was all because I wasn’t getting a dedicated sleep opportunity. I was asking my body to do something it couldn’t do. It was overworked.
A few years after the sleep issues started, I met someone who kind of grabbed a hold of me and said, “This is ridiculous. What is this for? What is the motivation to do this? Why you are doing this to yourself? Because you are doing this to yourself.”
It slowed me down enough to pay attention. I was 30 and felt like a 45- or 50-year-old workaholic. I decided to make some changes.
I started with being more committed to leaving the phone off and not answering emails. First it was no email after 9 p.m. — and then after 8 p.m. My fiancée isn’t a big fan of television, so now we do no TV in the evenings. It got to the point that we just turn off the power strip that powers our wireless and almost all of our electronics. Not being distracted by these things has also been good for our relationship.
I immediately started catching up on sleep and letting my body repair itself. Now I’m 35, but I feel like I’m in my mid-20s. The teeth grinding stopped. But the biggest thing is my happiness — there’s nothing that a good night’s sleep can’t cure in terms of attitude. When I get a good night’s sleep, I’m so much happier, and there’s very little that can irritate me.
Sleeping well has affected me in really every way. It allows me to be me. It allows me to be who I need to be for my fiancée, and as a dog owner. It empowers me to give the other components of my life the energy they need.
Killing the electronics in the evening and using a dawn simulator to wake up is a great recipe for sleeping well and waking well. The dawn simulator makes the bedroom slowly brighter, so we wake up naturally and peacefully instead of with a loud, obnoxious alarm. Even on nights when you don’t get the best sleep, at least you aren’t waking up mad at your alarm clock. Hearing that abrasive noise in the morning can be the first point of anger in your day. The dawn simulator is such a calm way to come back into the world and enter your day.
Now that I’m sleeping better, I’m so much more in tune with my body and more aware of the ebb and flow of my energy. You get in this positive feedback cycle where you continue to feel better and know your body better, so you’re able to continue making choices that help you feel even better. I can’t express enough how much I believe sleep affects every component of your life: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.
Hopefully, you can remember a time when you had a great night of sleep and woke up feeling wonderfully refreshed. The world seemed brighter, the problems of yesterday seemed smaller, and your body and mind were simmering with steady energy.
The boost we get from a proper night of rest is a clue that making sleep a priority is a good idea.
Research shows that the consequences of not getting enough sleep run the gamut: increased risk for anxiety, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, weight gain and a shorter lifespan.
One recent study showed that just one week of sleeping less than six hours per night affected the activity of more than 700 genes, including genes that monitor metabolism, inflammation, immune function and stress responses.1
Even a small dent in sleep—say, a couple hours stolen from one night or a few nights of tossing and turning—can diminish your mood, your ability to concentrate and your performance. Just a little sleep loss makes you more likely to catch a cold, get a headache, have an upset stomach or experience other digestive problems.
According to the late Peter Hauri, Ph.D., psychologist, co-author of “No More Sleepless Nights” and former director of Mayo Clinic’s Insomnia Program, “There’s no question that sleep is essential for health and happiness, and there are now reams of studies to document that.
“Sleep has many functions, ranging from the overall well-being of the individual to the behavior of individual cells,” he says.
A tired time in history
Despite the proven importance of sleep, we live in a busy culture that seems to keep speeding up and trying to do more, bigger and faster. Sleep has taken a back seat—or, more likely, it’s hanging onto the roof rack by a thread.
Today, estimates show people are sleeping roughly 20 percent less than they were a century ago, according to the National Sleep Foundation.2 And the loss of adequate sleep applies to all demographics, from toddlers to retired adults. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but a poll from the National Sleep Foundation found that 44 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep on work nights.3
If you’re thinking this doesn’t apply to you and that you’re getting the sleep you need, know this: When people are more sleep deprived, they’re less likely to realize their fatigue. Along those lines, feeling groggy becomes the new norm, and people forget what it’s like to feel fully rested and energized.
Consider the following questions before deciding whether you’re getting all the rest you need to feel your best. Do you wake up on your own in the morning without an alarm? Do you feel rested and refreshed after you get up? Do your energy levels remain fairly steady throughout the day without the use of any caffeine, sugar or other stimulants? Unless you answered yes to all those questions, you’d likely benefit from more shut-eye.
Again, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but some need a bit more, and some need less. Needing less sleep is rare, however, and more people think they need less sleep than they actually do.
The amount of sleep you require depends on gender (women generally need more), age (children and teens need much more) and other factors. But your genes make the real call on how much sleep you need—if you need nine hours to feel your best, blame it on that sleepy grandma of yours. Unless you have an underlying medical condition, people don’t typically sleep more than necessary. If you’re asleep, it’s likely because your body and brain need the rest.
Sleep: a nightly tuneup for your body and brain
Sleep might seem like a passive state, but an awful lot of important work is going on at night. With proper rest, your body is healed and repaired, your mind is sharpened and your brain chemistry is set up for a good and stable mood.
Study after study shows that sleep has a major influence on mood, attitude, outlook, emotional reactions and impulse-control for people of all ages.45678
Further, people with insomnia are more than five times as likely to experience anxiety or depression as those without insomnia.9
“For people who are vulnerable to mental health issues, sleep is the linchpin of protection,” says psychiatrist Henry Emmons, M.D., who has a private practice in Minneapolis and is author of “The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom” and “The Chemistry of Calm: A Powerful, Drug-Free Plan to Quiet Your Fears and Overcome Your Anxiety.”
Quality, consistent sleep that occurs at the right time (night) is crucial for good physical health, as well. “Sleep deprivation contributes to a number of molecular, immune and neural changes that play a role in disease development,”10 according to a joint statement by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.
Sleep is the time your body restores and repairs your cells to keep everything functioning smoothly. People with insomnia are more than twice as likely to have congestive heart failure.11 Skimping on sleep also makes people more likely to develop high blood pressure12 or have a stroke.1314
Sleep, especially deep sleep, is when your immune system kicks into high gear—rest is crucial for the immune system to function properly. One study showed that people who slept fewer than seven hours a night before exposure to a cold virus were three times more likely to get the cold than people who slept eight hours or more before exposure.15 On a more serious level, inadequate sleep increases your risk of developing autoimmune disease16 and many types of cancer, including breast, colon, endometrial and prostate.17
Numerous hormonal interactions, including those that regulate metabolism and appetite, occur at night and are affected by disrupted sleep. It’s well established that shorter spans of sleep leads to weight gain in people of all ages1819 and is linked to an increase in belly fat.20 Not getting enough sleep also affects your ability to properly regulate blood sugar and increases your risk of developing diabetes.2122
Sleep more to enjoy life more
Simply put, “Sleep is fundamental,” says Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in integrative sleep and dream medicine, practices with the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine and is author of “Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening,” “Healthy Sleep: Fall Asleep Easily, Sleep More Deeply, Sleep Through the Night, Wake up Refreshed” (co-authored with Andrew Weil, M.D.), and “The Yoga of Sleep: Sacred and Scientific Practices to Heal Sleeplessness.”
“Plus, if you’re not well rested, it’s also really difficult to do anything else well, like eat right or exercise,” Naiman says, “so sleepiness interferes with other vital health habits.”
It’s important to honor your body’s natural rhythms of waking and sleeping and restore sleep to its rightful place in your life, he says. People who put sleep on the back burner as they try to fit in more work or fun end up shortchanging the quality of their day, as well as their overall health and well-being.
Naiman says he has seen the difference sleep makes countless times with his clients. “People who are sleeping well are so much more alive and passionate in the world,” he says. “Once they start to sleep well and experience the difference it makes, they start to fall in love with sleep again.”