The second step on my 10 Baby Steps Towards Living a Healthier Life is to work on getting quality sleep.  The amount and quality of the sleep you get have a huge impact on your health.  Your diet and fitness might be in check, but if your sleep is not, your health may be suffering.

I’ll share with you here why sleep is important, how much sleep we should strive to get, and how we can improve our sleep.

Sleep Importance:

Effects of Lack of Sleep

According to John Hopkins Medicine and WebMD, a lack of sleep can cause many health problems, including:

  • Depression – A lack of sleep increases the symptoms for someone who has depression.  I don’t have depression, but I definitely am not in a good mood when I don’t get enough sleep.  I can get grumpy and more irritable.
  • Memory Problems – A lack of sleep has an impact on your memory.  When you did not get enough sleep the night before, you have trouble storing information in our memory that day.  So it is very difficult for children (and adults) to learn when they’re sleep deprived.
  • Slows Reaction Time – This is why driving when sleep deprived is not okay!  My husband used to be a truck driver, and they had limits as to how many hours they can drive before they have to take a break to sleep.  Many accidents happen when sleep deprived adults drive or operate machinery.
  • Increased Risk of Sickness – Sleep is the time our body fights infection and inflammation.  Our immune system releases proteins called cytokines that help fight sickness during sleep.  When we are sleep deprived, these proteins are decreased; so we are more likely to get sick and it takes longer to recover when we are sick.
  • Obesity – Sleep deprivation increases hunger, and it decreases your judgment.  So, you will most likely choose foods that are not health-promoting when you’re tired.  Lack of sleep also causes an increase in the hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol can lead to weight gain.
  • Diabetes – Type 2 diabetes can result from lack of sleep, increased cortisol, weight gain, and an increase in blood glucose that occurs from sleep deprivation.
  • High Blood Pressure – The stress hormone cortisol is increased with lack of sleep, which leads to high blood pressure.
  • Heart Attack – High blood pressure can lead to a greater chance of a heart attack.
  • Stroke – Like heart attacks, high blood pressure can also lead to strokes.
  • Skin Issues – Sleep deprivation can cause puffiness under our eyes, as we all know (especially if you’re a mom!).  It can also reduce our skin collagen, making our skin less smooth and elastic.

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Sleep Benefits

So much goes on when we’re sleeping!  Besides helping prevent the things listed above, enough quality sleep can promote:

  • Alertness
  • Energy
  • Brain Function
  • Positive Mood
  • Healthy Metabolism
  • Reduced Sugar and Carb Cravings
  • Healthy Weight

So, as you can see, it’s really important to get enough sleep!  You’re probably not going to develop one of the above health issues after a few nights of sleeplessness, but over time, one or more of those can become a reality.  So, don’t take the chance!  Get your sleep!

How Much Sleep Should We Get?

It is best for adults to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night.

I notice a BIG difference when I get anything less than 7 hours.  It is so hard to wake up in the morning, it takes me longer to fully wake up, I move more slowly, I’m not in a great mood, I get under-eye circles, and I get a headache.

Over time, you may get used to not getting enough sleep and think that you can handle it, but that doesn’t mean your body gets used to it.  Your health may still be suffering, even if you don’t see any effects right away.

I know we all have a million things to do in just a 24-hour day, but try your best to get AT LEAST 7 hours of sleep a night.  Your body will thank you!

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Tips for Sleeping Well:

In order to get quality sleep, it is important to follow your natural circadian rhythm.  Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour sleep and wake cycle.  It’s like your brain’s clock.  It knows when you need energy and when you need to get sleepy.  I find this SO fascinating.  Your body knows what is best for you!

Circadian rhythm can be adjusted and change over time (babies’ circadian rhythm is far different from young adults’).

It is important to follow our bodies’ signals and support our circadian rhythm so that we can get quality sleep and increase our health overall.

Here are some ways you can support your healthy circadian rhythm and sleep well:

1. Adjust your lights.  

When the sun goes down, it signals your body to wind down and get ready for bed.  Think back to the old days, before light bulbs were invented.  People woke up at the crack of dawn, worked all day, came in at dusk, ate dinner, probably read a little bit by candlelight, and went to bed.  They didn’t stay up for hours after the sun was down to keep working or watch TV.  They went to bed!

Obviously, we’re not all going to actually go to sleep as soon as the sun goes down, especially during the winter when that occurs at 6 pm.  But, when the sun goes down, the lights in your house should also go down.

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Turn bright overhead lights off and leave just a few lamps on.  Even better – turn white and blue lights (that mimic the sun and day sky) off and use red lights.  White and blue lights (think TV and phones) make your brain think it is still daytime and you still need energy.  I use this Himalayan Salt Lamp at nighttime.  I love it and the soft pink glow it gives off!  It’s so relaxing!

Gradually reduce light until you go to sleep.  I know this is a hard one – but try to avoid using your phone or watching TV at least an hour before bed.  Use that hour before bed to really wind your body down.

Low lighting signals the brain to release melatonin, a hormone that calms the body in order to get ready to sleep.

2. Nighttime Routine

Thirty-60 minutes before bedtime, start your nighttime routine.  Having a nighttime routine will help relax your body to support optimal sleep.  This could include turning off your tv, plugging your phone in (try to keep it away from your bed), taking a bath or shower, washing your face, drinking a cup of herbal (non-caffeinated) tea, brushing your teeth, and reading.

I find it really helpful to diffuse lavender essential oil at bedtime.  It really helps relax me.

3. Have a consistent bedtime.  

In order to keep your circadian rhythm healthy, it’s important to go to bed at the same time every night.  Staying up way later on the weekends can throw your circadian rhythm off and make it difficult going to sleep on time on weeknights.  I’ve definitely been victim to this.  I used to stay up until 11 or 12 on the weekends, and then when I needed to go to sleep at 9:30 on school nights, I would lie in bed wide away for hours because I wasn’t tired yet.

It’s helpful for me to set an alarm on my phone for bedtime.  I figure out what time I need to get up and go back 8 1/2 hours.  I currently get up at 5:45 am, so I set my bedtime alarm for 9:15 pm.  If I want to get 8 hours of sleep, that gives me 30 minutes to do my nighttime routine and get in bed.  It’s not like you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow (at least not for me – if you do, that’s awesome!).  Allow a few extra minutes for actually falling asleep.

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4.  Avoid caffeine after noon.  

This one is difficult for me too, because I love coffee!  I don’t usually feel like I actually NEED coffee to function.  I just really like the taste and the coziness (it’s like a warm hug!) of it.

Try to limit your caffeine intake and only consume caffeine before noon.  Even if it’s several hours before bedtime, drinking caffeine in the afternoon can impact your ability to fall asleep.

5.  Wakeup Routine

Another way to sleep well at night is to start your day the right way.  Your ability to have good sleep starts as soon as you wake up.  To support your body’s natural circadian rhythm, try to wake up when the sun comes up.  If you need to wake up earlier to be on time for work, do that.  But try not to sleep in too late in the morning.

When you wake up, do some stretching, drink some water, THEN coffee or tea if you choose, and go through the rest of your morning routine.

In your morning routine, add in some sunlight.  Sunlight first thing in the morning helps promote our circadian rhythm and signals to our bodies that we need energy.  You can sit outside and drink your coffee or go on a short walk outside.

6.  Exercise earlier in the day.

Exercise and getting plenty of movement throughout the day is so important.  I’ll share more about ways to get more exercise and movement in an upcoming post.  But, in order to fall asleep quickly, avoid working out right before bed.

Exercise increases the hormone cortisol which spikes our energy.  We need that during workout times, but not during sleeping time.  To sleep well, we need our relaxing hormone, melatonin.

7.  Supplements

If you’ve tried all the above things and are still having trouble falling to sleep and staying asleep, then you can consider adding in a supplement.

I would start with adding in an herbal tea like chamomile.  I drink this most nights before bed and it does help calm and relax me.

If that’s not helping enough, you can add in 5-HTP (a supplement extracted from an African seed).  5-HTP works in the brain to increase serotonin, which helps promote better sleep.  It can also be used to help with depression and obesity.

Finally, you can add in Melatonin supplements, if the above things are not working.  Talk to your doctor before you add melatonin in.  It is a hormone, and I would not mess with adding in hormones without careful thought and consulting with your doctor.  If for some reason your body is not making enough melatonin, you can add some in to promote better sleep.

I hope this helps!  Try to work on these things over the next week or so.  Go to bed on time and make sure you get enough quality sleep each night.  It will really help improve your health and wellness!  Let me know if you have any other sleep tips to share.

Improve Your Sleep Improve Your Health

Healthy Baby Step #2 -  Quality Sleep
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