In 1942, 59 percent of Americans were getting eight hours of sleep – or more – each night. Fast-forward to 2013 and that percentage had dropped to 34 percent. Further, the number sleeping a dangerously low numbers of hours each night – five or less – increased from just 3 percent in 1942 to 14 percent in 2013.1
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even warned that insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic linked to increases in motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters and medical and other occupational errors.
They also pointed out that people experiencing sleep insufficiency are more likely to suffer from “chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”2
Here’s an interesting point to consider: a survey by the Better Sleep Council revealed half of Americans say they don’t get enough sleep. Yet, less than half of them take any specific action to help them sleep better.3
Perhaps that’s because 45 percent of men also reported believing it’s possible to train yourself to need less sleep. I used to believe this too… but it’s a myth. Your body requires adequate sleep – about eight hours a night or so – and there’s no way of “fooling” it or getting around this basic need.
Further, many seemed reluctant to acknowledge the extreme health risks of insufficient sleep. Less than 30 percent of adults strongly agreed that lack of sleep contributes to memory loss, heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, for instance.
And when Americans wake up sleepy, which happens quite often, close to one-third rely on coffee or other caffeinated beverages as a way to get through the day. But, again, your body won’t be fooled.
Disruptions to sleep tend to cascade outward throughout your entire body. For example, during sleep your brain cells shrink by about 60 percent, which allows for more efficient waste removal.4
Sleep is also intricately tied to important hormone levels, including melatonin, production of which is disturbed by lack of sleep. This is extremely problematic, as melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cell types, as well as triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction).
Lack of sleep also decreases levels of your fat-regulating hormone leptin while increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. The resulting increase in hunger and appetite can easily lead to overeating and weight gain.
Separate research also found that when participants cut their sleep from 7.5 to 6.5 hours a night there were increases in activity in genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk, and stress.5 Poor or insufficient sleep was even found to be the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.6
If you’re having trouble sleeping, please don’t ignore it. Taking steps to get the proper sleep you need will make your life more enjoyable and your body healthier. What may surprise you is that many of the best ways to get better sleep are straightforward and quite easy for most people to implement.
1. Darkness in Your Bedroom, Bright Light During the Day
Ever since the advent of the light bulb, people have become increasingly “darkness deficient” at night, while simultaneously getting too little light during the day, courtesy of working indoors.
Light intensity is measured in lux units, and on any given day, the outdoor lux units will be around 100,000 at noon. Indoors, the typical average is somewhere between 100 to 2,000 lux units — about two orders of magnitude less.
The brightness of the light matters, because your pineal gland produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night.
If you are in relative darkness all day long, it can't appreciate the difference and will not optimize your melatonin production, and that can have some rather significant ramifications for your health and sleep. As reported by Gizmodo:7
“The light – and the dark – are important signals for the cycle. This circadian rhythm has developed over three billion years as life evolved on Earth in the context of the sun’s day/night cycle. It is built deeply into our genetic makeup.
During the night, in the dark, body temperature drops, metabolism slows, and the hormone melatonin rises dramatically. When the sun comes up in the morning, melatonin has already started falling, and you wake up.
This natural physiological transition into and out of night is of ancient origin, and melatonin is crucial for the process to proceed as it should.
If you were to put someone in a dark cave with no time cues at all, the cycle will last about 24 hours, but not exactly. Without time cues like those from the sun, eventually that person would become out of sync with people outside.”
Aside from lowering body temperature, slowing metabolism, and raising melatonin, your body also undergoes a number of other changes when in the dark. For example, levels of the hunger hormone leptin rises, which decreases feelings of hunger.
Gene expression is also affected by your endogenous circadian clock, as is cellular growth and repair, and hormone production. Exposing yourself to light at night even briefly leads to the disruption of all of these processes, setting the stage for diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and depression.
2. Nap Wisely
Regularly napping during the day, particularly for longer periods, may disrupt your circadian rhythm — the 24-hour cycles known as your internal body clock.
In one study, daytime sleepers, including regular nappers, showed decreased gene expression, with up to one-third of participants' genes measurably altered by the disrupted sleep cycles.8
There is some evidence that short naps may actually be beneficial, however. According to Dr. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and the leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams, we're actually biologically programmed to nap during the daytime, typically in the middle of the afternoon.
Some European countries still adhere to the daily siesta and close shop for a couple of hours in the middle of the day when the heat is also at its most pressing.
Most employers in Western countries, however, do not accommodate daily snoozing, so when the natural tendency to get drowsy sets in, you may try to alleviate it with coffee, or simply fight the urge to take a nap. However, if you feel the urge to nap in the afternoon, and you can safely do so, it’s probably best not to fight it.
The “ideal” nap time for adults appears to be around 20 minutes (any longer and you’ll enter the deeper stages of sleep and may feel groggy when you wake up). According to the National Sleep Foundation:9
“Sleeping for a short time can make you more alert and energetic – this might be critical to your work or school productivity, or to your ability to take care of a child during the day. Most people feel refreshed after a nap that lasts approximately 20 minutes.”
3. Aim for Eight Hours of Sleep
Most adults really need about eight hours of sleep every night – not just eight hours spent in bed but eight hours actually sleeping. To accomplish this, many people need to first set this goal of eight hours in their mind and then make practical, logistic changes.
If you have a set wake time (which is a good idea anyway) and you’re not able to squeeze in enough hours, you’ll need to adjust your schedule so you’re going to bed earlier.
Turn off the TV, the computer, and your phone, and commit to sleeping from a set bedtime that gives you a solid eight hours before you need to wake up. If you’re unsure how many hours of sleep you’re getting each night, try a wearable fitness tracker like the Jawbone UP. It will monitor your actual time spent asleep so you can adjust your schedule accordingly.
One of the benefits of exercise is better sleep at night, and this appears to be true regardless of the time of day the exercise occurs. A study published in 2011, for instance, found that when people exercised vigorously for 35 minutes right before bed they slept just as well as on nights when they didn't exercise.10
Another study, a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, found that 83 percent of people said they slept better when they exercised (even late at night) than when they did not.11 More than half of those who exercised moderately or vigorously said they slept better on workout days than non-workout days, and just 3 percent of late-day exercisers said their sleep quality was worse when they exercised than when they did not. The National Sleep Foundation concluded that exercise is good for sleep, noting:
"While some believe exercising near bedtime can adversely affect sleep and sleep quality, no major differences were found between the data for individuals who say they have done vigorous and/or moderate activity within four hours of bedtime compared to their counterparts (those who did vigorous or moderate activity more than four hours before bedtime). According to the 2013 Sleep in America® poll, the conclusion can be drawn that exercise, or physical activity in general, is generally good for sleep, regardless of the time of day the activity is performed."
5. Get the Temperature Right
Thermoregulation – your body's heat distribution system – is strongly linked to sleep cycles. Even lying down increases sleepiness by redistributing heat in your body from the core to the periphery. When you sleep, your body’s internal temperature actually drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body’s natural temperature drop.
This is also why taking a warm bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime may also help you sleep; it increases your core body temperature, and when it abruptly drops when you get out of the bath, it signals your body that you are ready for sleep. While there’s no set consensus as to what temperature will help you sleep the best, in most cases any temperature above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will interfere with your sleep.12
Once you’re within that range, many factors can influence which temperature is best for you including, of course, your choice of pajamas and bedding. Many people keep their homes too warm (particularly their upstairs bedrooms). Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is actually between 60 to 68 degrees F, so adjust your thermostat (or use of blankets and fans) accordingly.
Interestingly, while a cool room and a lower core temperature may help you sleep better, cold hands and feet will not. Because blood flow is a prime method of distributing heat evenly throughout your body, if your extremities are cold it could be a sign of poor blood flow, which results in sleeplessness. The solution for this is simple: put on a pair of warm socks or place a hot water bottle near your feet.
The natural sleep aids described above will work with your body’s natural circadian rhythm to help you get truly restful sleep. This is not the case with prescription sleeping pills, which may actually put your life in danger. A startling study in 2012 revealed that people who take sleeping pills are not only at higher risk for certain cancers (35 percent higher), but they are also nearly four times as likely to die as people who don't take them. The list of health risks from sleeping pills is growing all the time, including the following:
- Higher risk of death, including from accidents
- Increased risk of cancer
- Increased insulin resistance, food cravings, weight gain, and diabetes
- Complete amnesia, even from events that occurred during the day
- Depression, confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations
Research involving data from more than 10,500 people who received drugs for poor sleep (including benzodiazepines) also showed that "as predicted, patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics," and the association held true even when patients with poor health were taken into account – and even if the patients took fewer than 18 pills in a year.13 In The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills, an E-book by one of the study's researchers, Daniel Kripke, MD, it's explained:14
"We have now published a new study of over 10,000 patients who took sleeping pills and over 20,000 matched patients who did not take sleeping pills. The patients who took sleeping pills died 4.6 times as often during follow-ups averaging 2.5 years. Patients who took higher doses (averaging over 132 pills per year) died 5.3 times as often. Even those patients who took fewer than 18 pills per year had very significantly elevated mortality, 3.6 times that of patients who took no hypnotics.
It seems quite likely that the sleeping pills were causing early death for many of the patients. In addition, those who averaged over 132 sleeping pills per year were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer…
Theoretically, there could be confounding factors or biases in the selection of patients which caused these deaths without involving sleeping pills. We can only say that we found almost no evidence of such biases… If sleeping pills cause even a small portion of the excess deaths and cancers associated with their use, they are too dangerous to use."