It may look like you’re doing nothing when you sleep, but rest assured, your body is working hard and improving every area of your life.
“All the things you learn get consolidated and stored as memories while you sleep,” says Dr. Meeta Singh, a HAP-contracted doctor who helps Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers players get the shut-eye they need to perform, no matter what time zone they wake up in.
“Sleep also is vital to your physical health,” says Singh, medical director of the sleep lab at Henry Ford Health Center-Columbus in Novi. “It’s a biological need.”
Sleep acts like a vacuum cleaner for your brain, according to the National Sleep Foundation. During the day, normal brain cell activity creates waste. As it accumulates, you start to feel tired. The waste is flushed away during sleep, enabling you to awake refreshed and alert. Sleep also removes toxic proteins in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Routine activities and exercise also take a toll on tissues and joints. But the majority of the body’s repair and growth processes occur mostly or only during sleep. Your blood pressure and heart rate also drop, giving your hard-working heart a rest. Breathing slows, too, and muscles relax, easing tension and some types of chronic pain.
Pain, as well as health problems and stress, prevent many Americans from getting the quantity or quality of sleep they need, a 2015 National Sleep Foundation poll shows. Yet, experts say, simple lifestyle tweaks can make a big difference in helping even troubled sleepers rest easier.
To get better sleep, try these tips:
Make sleep a priority
Americans who said they were very or extremely motivated to get enough sleep logged 36 more minutes per night on average (7.3 hours) than others, a National Sleep Foundation study found. Also, for adults who slept almost the recommended seven to nine hours a night, adding an extra 15 to 30 minutes left them feeling significantly better, the study said. Exercising for 30 minutes during the day pays off with better sleep at night. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, too, even on weekends.
Help yourself wind down
Avoid stimulating activities a few hours before bedtime. This includes stressors such as arguing with your mate or checking work email as well as consuming caffeine or nicotine. Although alcohol may initially make you drowsy, it disrupts sleep later, she says. Turn off electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. Dim the lights and read or listen to soft music. A bedtime bath or shower pulls double duty: Warm water relaxes, and when you get out, your body temperature drops, helping you feel tired.
Better your bedroom
Keep it cool (65 to 68 degrees), quiet and dark and banish TVs, computers, cellphones and the like. Many screens emit what’s called “blue light.” “All of us have a clock in our brains,” Singh says. “That blue light can cause shifts in the clock that prevent you from sleeping.” Although some newer models may reduce these effects, Singh says electronics interfere with sleep in other ways, as well. Use an alarm clock and turn it away from you, she says.
When to get help
Whether you’re fretting about a work project or family drama, “many people say it’s difficult to turn their minds off,” Singh says.
Try deep breathing or other relaxation exercises. Physical issues, including PMS, perimenopause (when a woman is transitioning toward menopause) and prostate problems, also can disturb sleep. If sleep difficulties last for a month, Singh recommends seeing your primary care doctor, who may refer you to a specialist.
“Don’t take anything to help you sleep without talking to a physician,” she says.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults ages 26 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep, but some people may need slightly more or less. However, if you’re clocking less than six hours a night or more than 10, you may have a serious health problem and should see your docto