One of the most important steps you can take to protect your health -- not just during the Coronavirus outbreak but at all times -- is to get enough quality sleep.
But, as many of us are discovering, getting that precious shut-eye is becoming more difficult. That may be because our daily routines have changed. But research tells us that worries connected with the virus, about our jobs, our families and our own health, are also keeping many of us awake.
Insufficient or poor sleep can cause a range of problems. For instance, studies show that poor sleep significantly increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also affects our energy levels, brain activity and hormone levels.
Most of us have an idea about how to get a better night's sleep but sometimes we just don’t put those ideas into practice. And the challenge is made tougher because different people have different sleep needs. There's no one-size-fits-all.
In fact there are marked variations in sleep patterns across the US. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Californians generally fare better than sleepers back East and in the South East.
But among Californians, unfortunately, Angelinos have the poorest sleep. And that was from a study conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak.
So what represents a good night's sleep and how do we get it?
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
After a two-year, global study, the National Sleep Foundation offers the following "rules of thumb" for the required daily amount:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
These are quite wide ranges but they point to what we already suspected: A good figure for adults to aim for is 8 hours; and less than 7 hours almost certainly suggests we're not getting enough.
Why Do I Sleep?
Sleep experts still don’t really know precisely why we sleep, although it seems to be part of a clearing, memorizing and reorganizing process. One thing we do know is that it's impossible and dangerous to go without sleep for more than a couple of days.
We also know that sleep follows a pattern, with several phases that vary from light and dreamy through deep sleep. They're all essential to our wellbeing.
Our sleep is also triggered by what is known as the Circadian Rhythm, an automatic process that responds to light and dark.
How to Get a Better Night's Sleep for Your Health
People ask, how can I get better sleep? The most important way to get good sleep is to follow the "rules". Don't just select the ones that are easiest for you, or follow them just now and then. Establish a routine and then stick to it.
Here are the five most important steps based on CDC recommendations:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends. If you have to be up by 6am, you need to be in bed by 10pm. Period.
It's tempting to stay in bed late on weekends or days when you don’t have a work schedule, especially if you're newly working from home. But your body is trying to establish a sleep pattern and it won’t be able to do that if you vary your times.
In fact, sleep experts say that even if you have trouble falling asleep and stay awake for lengthy periods, you should still get up at your regular time.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature. For "comfortable", read "cool". Overheating is a major cause of insomnia or poor quality sleep.
The reason: Your body tries to lower its temperature to induce sleep and it can't do that if the room is too hot. Experts say bedroom temperature should be lower than 70 degrees. That can sometimes be a tall order in our SoCal climate but using cool, heat-wicking sheets can help.
You should also hang heavy drapes to block out the light and use subdued lighting in your bedroom. Light -- or rather the lack of it -- is one of the key sleep signals our brains use. If there's too much light, use a dimmer while you're preparing and then wear a mask to sleep.
If you still have sleep comfort problems, maybe it's time to review your pillows and mattress. Research says a good mattress can improve sleep time and quality by up to 60 percent. Bedding should be upgraded at least every 8 years.
- Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom. This is a tough one, but late night screen time has been shown to be one of the key causes of insomnia.
Watching TV in bed, or even checking your email, may be enjoyable but it'll knock a few points off your sleepability and quality.
Research suggests you shouldn’t be looking at electronic screens for at least an hour before starting your sleep. Some experts extend that period to two hours.
- Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. Don't be tricked by the fact that meals and alcohol can make you feel sleepy. The feeling doesn't last. And even if you manage to sleep, it won’t be as restful or nourishing as it should be.
Caffeine, which is found in other drinks besides coffee -- tea, some sodas and energy drinks -- shouldn't be consumed within six hours of bedtime.
Try not to eat for at least three hours before turning in.
- Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night. But it's not a good idea to exercise late or just before bed. Do it during the day.
A study of older adults found that regular exercise led to them falling asleep faster and sleeping for an extra 40 minutes. With confirmed insomniacs, exercise reduces fall-asleep time by more than 50 percent, anxiety by 15 percent and the total amount of sleep by almost 20 percent.
Should you take a supplement to help you sleep? Get medical advice before deciding on this, especially as some sleep-inducing products can leave you feeling sleepy the next day.
A popular supplement is melatonin, a chemical that your body actually produces when the light fades, signaling sleep time. Other popular supplements include ginkgo biloba, glycine, valerian, magnesium, L-theanine and lavender.
(You should also take medical advice if you feel something else is disrupting your sleep, if you keep waking up on the night or if you're a heavy snorer. This could indicate a disorder like sleep apnea, which can be identified through a sleep study.)
Other aids to a good night's sleep include finding ways to relax your body and mind -- for example through meditation and mindfulness practice. We'll discuss this next time.
Meantime, sleep easy and sleep well. You'll be better for it.