Neuroscientist Matt Walker has devoted his life to studying sleep and understanding it s effects on human health so it’s no surprise his TED Talk, Sleep is your Superpower, is a homerun on the subject. I encourage you all to take a few minutes to listen to this important talk and think critically about your own sleep habits and how they may be affecting your health.

We have heard it over and over—poor quality sleep can take years off our lives. There are no shortcuts. Our bodies need a certain amount of sleep and we need to find a way to make it a priority in our lives. Lack of sleep can cause several negative side effects, may increase our risk for various diseases and has even been linked to early death. I am writing this for me just as much as all of you. Echoing Matt Walker’s thoughts; it’s time to SHIFT our habits and it’s time to get more sleep.

What exactly happens when we sleep and why is sleep so important? A complete sleep cycle takes an average of 90 minutes and rotates through five phases of sleep, with the last one being REM sleep. During stages 3 and 4, we can expect to have our most restorative sleep; this is when our bodies are building energy for the next day. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults ages 26-64 sleep 7-9 hours per night which means we will cycle through these phases about 5-6 times.

Lack of quality, restorative sleep in stages 3 and 4 over time can cause many negative side effects including fatigue, an inefficient immune system, a decrease in learning and memory as well a higher risk of dementia. More seriously, inadequate sleep may also increase our risk for stroke, high blood pressure, cancer and cardiac disease.

Even if you have struggled with sleep problems for so long that it seems normal, you can still learn to sleep better by making healthy changes to your daytime habits and bedtime routine. Here are a few tips that can help:

  • Create a routine. Go to bed at the same time each night and turn off your TV, phone and iPad.
  • Sleep in a cold room (or sleep in less clothes). The body’s core temperature needs to drop in order to initiate sleep. If we are hot, our body will work to regulate its temperature, keeping us awake. A colder room can encourage us to fall asleep faster.
  • Get consistent exercise, but not right before bed. Regular exercise has been found to be an effective way to treat poor sleep habits. However, exercise most often has an energetic effect, so it’s advised to finish your workout at least 3 hours before bed.
  • Patterns that can be repeated such as mediation, breathing or prayer can help the brain slow down and decompress from the day.
  • Don’t let food or drink interfere. Eating within 75 min of going to sleep can cause indigestion and lead to decreased sleep quality. Caffeine and alcohol can also be sleep disrupters. Try eliminating caffeine after 12pm if you are having trouble falling asleep. And although it is typically easier to fall asleep after having a few drinks, alcohol can cause more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.
  • Seek out intimacy. It’s important to be able to share what’s on our minds with a trusted source. Social intimacy can help us with bottled up thoughts and help us feel safe, secure and supported. Physical intimacy can also be important. As little as 20-30 seconds of physical intimacy helps release oxytocin and blunts the cortisol response, enabling us to relax faster.

Although there are a variety of sleep problems and disorders, many of us struggle with insomnia at some point in our lives (a sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep). If you are awake and haven’t been able to sleep for at least 30 minutes, move to a different room, read a book or write in a journal. Don’t sit in bed and “try” to sleep, and don’t watch TV or the iPad. Electronics emit blue light which can trigger your brain to stop producing melatonin, a hormone which is important for quality sleep.

There could be a variety of reasons you might wake up in the middle of the night such as anxiety, stomach problems or hormone fluctuations. If your mind is working through an issue, write down the ideas and schedule “worry time” the next day. Anything that you’re concerned about at 3am is usually worse at 3am than it may be later in the day when you’re more awake, aware and equipped with better strategies to handle the problem. And if you really can’t fall back asleep? Get up, get some work done and start your day. Prepare to end your day earlier the next day so you can get back on track.

Lastly, I often have patients ask about sleep medications. While this is a larger topic, in general sleep aids should be prescribed as a short-term solution for sleeping problems.  Although certain medications do a great job of initiating sleep, they do not enable you to fully experience the restorative phase of the cycle, producing ineffective sleep. Sleep medications can have adverse side effects and shouldn’t be taken without permission from a doctor.

Time is our greatest currency in life and the energy we bring to that time increases or decreases the value of it. We need sleep to survive and we need good quality sleep to thrive. Utilize these tips in order to build better sleep habits and in turn, build better health.

Sweet dreams!