The Importance of Sleep
by Kirsten Falcone, RN
A recent email from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 1 in 3 adults doesn’t get enough sleep. According to the CDC, sleeping at least 7 hours each night is required “to promote optimal health and well-being.” Most health professionals recommend 7 to 9 hours.
Conversely, it states if you sleep less than 7 hours per night, you are at risk of developing a chronic condition, such as “obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.” Lack of sleep can also elevate stress hormones; and cause mood swings, slower response time, confusion, lack of focus, poor decision-making and unnecessary risk-taking. This can have hazardous side-effects and consequences in our everyday lives, such as poor performance on the job, in school, in our relationships, and also in driving or operating machinery.
By all conservative estimates, the number of sleep-deprived adults can be significantly higher in college communities. As the nurse in the Hilbert College Wellness Center, most of my sick patients are sleep-deprived, acquiring less than six hours per night. There are many excuses for this, such as living with a loud roommate, studying for a test, going out late at night, working at a night job, or just not being that motivated or self-controlled. Many students are unaware of how important sleep really is.
Sleep is important. Here are some reasons. While you sleep, your brain is forming pathways for learning and storing memories. Your body is building up its immune system and healing damage caused throughout the day. Hormones called cytokines, which are produced during the night, are crucial for your immune system to fight infection and inflammation. During the day, a compound called adenosine is built up, and it is only broken down again by getting enough sleep. If you miss a few nights of sound sleep, the adenosine will build up and cause sleepiness during the day. Another substance, a hormone called melatonin, makes you naturally feel sleepy at night, but that can be reversed to daytime sleepiness, if you don’t fulfill your nighttime sleep requirements.
Going to bed at the same time every night, say 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., allows your body to cycle through sleep stages, each with a specific purpose. The four stages must be experienced in chronological order for sleep to do its job. In addition, the beginning of the night presents longer stages than the end of the night. For example, non-REM deep sleep, considered the “restorative” stage of sleep occurs mostly in the first half of the night. Knowing this makes it clear that going to bed at the same time every night is crucial to maintaining good health.
If you know you have gotten off-track, here are some ways to improve your sleep habits:
- Use caffeine only in the morning. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it will disrupt your sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and nicotine. Alcohol may help put you to “sleep” at the beginning of the night, but it has been shown to cause lighter, less fitful sleep, and it actually interrupts sleep halfway through the night, as well as causing dehydration. Nicotine (in cigarettes) is a stimulant that leads to lighter than normal sleep.
- Establish a “bedtime” again, and stick to it. Your parents were right to enforce this, and now you know why.
- Don’t take a nap longer than 20 minutes, or past 3:00 p.m. This may make it more difficult to wake up fully, and then to go to sleep at your predetermined time.
- Wind down at night by dimming lights, turning off the TV and electronics (including your cell phone!), and taking a hot shower or bath before bed. Have a comfortable bed and pillow, and keep the room temperature cool.
- Get enough exercise and fresh air during the day, so you are sleepy at the right time. Make sure this is not within two hours of your newly established bedtime, though.
- Put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door, if you live in a community that stays up late.
- Wear ear plugs, if necessary.
- For chronic insomnia, see a doctor who can help you determine the cause of your sleeplessness.
- Avoid sleeping pills. These are habit-forming, and should be used only as a last resort and only occasionally.
- Don’t rely on sleeping in on the weekends. This may erase some of your sleep debt, but not all of it. It will also make it much more difficult to get to sleep at the proper time on Sunday night.
- Eat healthfully. When you fuel your body properly, it just runs better overall. Also, don’t eat any large meals just before bed. Indigestion may wake you up!
- Learn how to manage time. Ultimately, going to bed at the right time, rather than studying for that test until the wee hours, will help you do better on your test the next day. It would be even better to schedule study time during the daytime.
Remember the words of Ben Franklin, “Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Sweet dreams!
For more information, visit these Web sites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Guide to Healthy Sleep: