Sleep: You know it’s essential, but how much do you need, and what if you can’t sleep?
When it comes to our health and wellness, we’re usually focused on all of the things we should be doing (exercising, moving throughout the day, eating healthy food). Interestingly, it’s what we do when we’re asleep that has such a tremendous impact on our overall health and well-being, making sleep a crucial ingredient for a healthy lifestyle. During sleep, our bodies build strength (by building and repairing muscle tissue), release hormones, restore energy, and recharge our brain. Sleep is #1 in the health hierarchy (in my opinion), as it is the foundation upon which all our other healthy habits are built.
Why is sleep so important for your health (and body composition)?
Choosing the right amount of nourishing food is much more challenging without adequate sleep. Poor sleep quality has been associated with increased calorie intake and a lower quality diet. A lack of sleep may even change the way your brain responds to smells, contributing to cravings for foods with higher calorie and fat content.
Without enough sleep, having the energy and stamina needed to get in a great workout is tough to do when you are feeling sluggish. Research shows that inadequate sleep quality can significantly impact athletic performance and increase the risk of injury and illness, making adhering to a regular exercise routine hard to do.
The good news is that the occasional rough night may not have much effect the next day; but just a few days of regular sleeplessness can definitely take its toll.
One recent study found that all it takes is three consecutive nights of sleep loss (fewer than six hours) to cause your “mental and physical well-being to deteriorate significantly.” Researchers found that participants who slept at least 1 1/2 hours less than usual for eight consecutive days reported feeling angry, nervous, frustrated, lonely, and irritable and also experienced upper respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, aches, and other physical symptoms. These symptoms persisted (and continued to elevate) until the subjects could sleep more than six hours again.
Do we all really need to get at least eight hours?
Most research shows that the sweet spot for sleep is between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the individual. The study mentioned previously found that six hours seemed to be the minimum needed for regular performance not to be negatively impacted. Still, eight hours may not be necessary for everyone, and according to some research, an average of seven hours may be more optimal.
As with most healthy habits, finding the right amount of sleep that works best for you is what matters most. Ideally, you want to wake up feeling rested and have sustainable energy for your day (i.e., no dozing off in the afternoon). If you feel you could use more shut-eye time, try moving your bedtime earlier by about 15-minute increments until you can find the right amount of sleep that allows you to wake up feeling rested and ready to go. And while morning workouts are an excellent way to fit in fitness before the day gets away, if you have to choose between getting enough sleep or a full workout, get enough sleep first (it’s that essential!).
Ok, so you know sleep is important, but what if you can’t sleep?
There’s nothing worse than knowing how important sleep is for your health, waistline, and well-being and still being unable to sleep well despite your best efforts. Some of the most effective ways to improve sleep are cognitive behavior therapy and regular exercise (yay!), but figuring out how to sleep more soundly may depend on what is causing your sleep issue in the first place.
Here are a few common (and not so common) sleep challenges and how to start addressing them:
If you regularly find it hard to sleep (or stay asleep) due to feelings of anxiety or stress, there are a few things you can try to help. Many of these you may already know (and may have already tried!), but it’s worth repeating (and trying again sometimes):
Exercise regularly. You may need to experiment with the time of day that works best for you regarding your schedule and sleep. Some may find evening workouts too stimulating, while others may find that it helps relieve the stress of the day and assists in nodding off at bedtime.
Practice stress-relieving activities. These ‘activities’ can be whatever helps your brain the most, whether it’s spending time knitting, doing puzzles, or in meditation or prayer.
Watch out for stimulants. Avoid caffeine within a reasonable window before bedtime. Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as 10 hours, but how your body processes it varies by the individual (some can have an espresso after dinner with no problem, but others may need to cut off coffee by noon). You’ll also want to check with your doctor about any medications you are taking that could also act as stimulants.
Set the tone for a relaxing sleep, but try not to force it. Check that your room is at a comfortable temperature, dark (sleep masks are great if you can’t avoid some light), and quiet (or at whatever noise level you prefer – sound machines can help!). And if you can’t fall asleep (or back to sleep), try getting out of bed and doing a calming, relaxing activity (such as reading, etc.) until you feel sleepy. Staying in bed can often make things worse if you begin to feel anxious about needing to get to sleep.
Hormone Fluctuations: Unfortunately, hormones can play a significant role in sleep disturbance. Many women find that during the week before their period, they may sleep less soundly or experience bouts of insomnia. Paying attention to when you experience sleeplessness may be helpful in figuring out the cause. For example, you may want to note what day(s) in your cycle you are having trouble sleeping, or if there were any additional changes to your routine or stress levels that day/week, etc. If you start noting specific patterns, it may be useful to share these with your doctor in order to provide them with as much information as possible to help with treatment options.
Hot flashes during peri-menopause and menopause can also affect your sleep significantly! If you suspect hormones to be the culprit behind regular sleep disturbances, be sure to talk to your doctor about what else you can do to help get your sleep back. Interestingly, there may be a connection between blood glucose levels and hot flashes, something else you may also want to discuss with your doctor.
Blood Sugar Levels: Research shows a strong connection between sleep and glucose levels — sleep can affect blood sugar levels, and blood sugar levels can affect sleep. Having both too high or too low blood sugar levels have been shown to disrupt sleep. If you have been unable to pinpoint the cause of your sleeplessness and haven’t had your blood sugar levels checked recently, it may be worth exploring this with your doctor to find out more.
If you are already working on improving your blood glucose, exercise can help. In addition to optimizing your diet, exercising within 30 minutes after a meal can help lower blood sugar levels (think walking, not high intensity exercise that close to eating) and strength training can help maintain lower blood glucose levels overall (even better than cardio exercise can). Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is just one more health benefit to following a balanced workout plan (one study found that a combination of both regular strength and cardio training can improved HbA(1c) levels in type 2 diabetics).
Supplements/Sleep Aids: When you have trouble sleeping, it’s understandable to want to take medication or supplements that can help. But most are not for long-term use, and it’s easy to become dependent on them. Plus, many can leave you feeling groggy or confused in the morning. Some stronger sedatives can lead to a lack of coordination and can potentially cause drug interactions with other medications you may be taking. If you are currently taking a sleep aid and want to stop, please check with your doctor about how best to cease your dose, as many medications and even supplements can make it even more challenging to sleep if you stop taking them all at once. Please check with your doctor about this, as you’ll want their expert advice on what to take (or try), what to avoid, how to start weaning off them, etc.
Children: Just kidding (sort of). 🙂 Parents, you know the struggle is real! With this one, we just have to do our best and try to maintain a little sense of humor about it. “People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.” — Leo J. Burke
And for those who may be caregivers for loved ones/family, please keep doing the best you can. Sleepless nights are only one of the many sacrifices worth making for our loved ones. As you care for those you love, be sure to keep taking good care of you, too, so that you can keep giving so much to all those you may need you most during this season of life.
Finally, if you have some nights, weeks, months (or even years!) when sleep is elusive, please give yourself grace. Know that your body may need more TLC while you are fatigued, so do your best to fuel with healthy, energizing foods (and be prepared with snacks for when cravings hit, as they are harder to avoid when you are sleep deprived!) and stay well hydrated (another natural energy booster). Shorter naps in the early afternoon can also help recharge you. If you are able to (and know that naps help you feel better), try taking a short 20-minute-or-so power nap to help manage fatigue.
You may also need to dial back on the intensity of your workouts when you are extra tired to help avoid injury or depleting your body further. Walking, fusion, core, mobility workouts, or other lighter forms of movement are excellent options to help you stay active without overdoing it. Allow your body plenty of time to recharge and recover.
If you have trouble sleeping, try not to make it worse by stressing out about it. Do your best to practice healthy habits that promote good sleep, such as regular exercise, stress-relieving techniques, and ensuring your bedroom is relaxing, dark, and at a comfortable temperature. If you are struggling with sleep regularly, seek help from a medical professional who may be able to offer a more specific diagnosis and treatment options to help you get back to better Zzzzz. And when you do have those sleepless nights that inevitably happen, try not to worry about it too much and take good care of your body the next day.
Here’s to your health (and a good night’s sleep!)
“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”
— Wilson Mizener