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Sleep: Its Health Benefits, How Much You Need, and Strategies to Get More

Did you know that approximately 31% of Montanans report not getting enough sleep? This statistic is worrisome, since getting enough quality sleep every night can help to improve health. For example, quality sleep reduces the risk of developing chronic diseases, is beneficial for mental health, and even sharpens focus at work. Being well-rested can improve things from mood and memory to the ability to fight off infection. But what exactly is good quality sleep, and how much of it is needed? This MontGuide provides answers to these questions, and strategies to improve sleep habits to wake up rested, and help improve overall health and wellbeing.

Last Updated: 03/21
by Michelle Grocke, PhD, Assistant Professor and MSU Extension Health and Wellness Specialist and Kara Erickson, Graduate Research Assistant

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is essential to physical and mental health, as it helps our bodies and minds recover and rejuvenate from the stressors of everyday life. As a result, when we sleep well, research suggests that we are more energetic, happier, and able to better concentrate. Everyone, from children to adults, can benefit from getting better sleep.

 

How does a body know when to sleep?

Human beings are built to be active during the day and asleep at night. Our sleep patterns are regulated by circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are internally driven cycles that work like a 24-hour clock, telling when we should go to sleep and when we should wake up. At night, our brains produce melatonin, a hormone that helps with the timing of circadian rhythms. This internal clock also regulates processes within the body such as hormonal activity, body temperature, and our digestive system. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, these internal processes may be disrupted. In turn, this disruption can negatively affect sleep quality.

 

How much sleep do we need?

Although the average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep per night, some people may need more to feel fully rested. In addition to quantity of sleep, the quality of sleep is critical. In order to get quality sleep, our bodies must progress through the sleep cycle, composed of four separate sleep stages (N1, N2, N3, and REM sleep). Sleep scientists think that each sleep stage serves a different purpose. For example, most of our dreaming occurs in REM sleep, which helps us process the events that have happened to us. If we do not properly cycle through these four stages (anywhere from four to six times per night), our bodies are unable to get high-quality rest. Some signs of not getting quality sleep include:

  • Feeling tired despite having slept long enough
  • Having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Waking up repeatedly through the night
  • Snoring or gasping for air while sleeping
  • Needing an alarm clock to wake up
  • Falling asleep within five minutes
  • Feeling groggy or dozing off during daily activities such as watching TV, riding in a car, sitting quietly
  • Feeling irritable, anxious, or having a difficult time paying attention during the daytime

 

The Connection Between Sleep and Health

Physical Health

Healthy sleep promotes peak physical performance and productivity. Because sleep helps bodies rejuvenate from daily stressors, with enough quality sleep, we are better able to fight off infection as well as reduce the risk of developing a chronic disease, such as Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Getting enough quality sleep also helps to maintain a healthy weight, which lowers the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases.

 

 

Did you know?

In the United States, 3 in 10 working adults sleep 6 hours or less per night. Sleeping for six hours or less per night increases an individual’s risk for:

    • Coronary heart disease by 35%
    • Diabetes by 25%
    • Stroke by 22%
    • Obesity by 21%

Little Sleep, Big Cost Infographic. (n.d.). http://sleepeducation.org/healthysleep/infographics/little-sleep-big-cost-infographic

 

 

Table 1: Did you know that age impacts how much sleep is needed in a 24-hour period? Refer to the age groups below to see how much sleep is needed.

Age Hours
Infant (ages 4-12 months) 12-16
Toddler (ages 1-2) 11-14
Preschool (ages 3-5) 10-13
Elementary (ages 6-12) 9-12
Teenagers (ages 13-18) 8-10
Adults (ages 18-65) 7-9
Adults (ages 65 and older) 7-8

CDC - How Much Sleep Do I Need? - Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2017, March 02). https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html

 

 

Mental Health

Because sleep plays such an important role in human functioning, lack of sleep can negatively affect behavior, mood, memory, and emotions. When we have not slept well enough, we may find ourselves being forgetful and making simple mistakes throughout a day. Not getting enough quality sleep may also increase levels of anxiety and depression (which in some cases could lead to more severe mental health outcomes such as suicidal ideation), and can also impact relationships with others. In extreme cases, sleep deprivation can even cause hallucinations and delayed impulse control. On the other hand, sleeping well sharpens the mind, assists in decision-making, helps us excel at work and school, and helps balance moods and emotions.

 

Safety

Lack of sleep can also impair our ability to function or react in potentially dangerous situations. Driving a vehicle, operating heavy machinery, or performing other potentially risky tasks can be much more dangerous while drowsy. For example, driving while drowsy can slow down reaction time, affect the ability to make quick decisions, and cause us to be less attentive overall. Driving while drowsy can lead to serious consequences.

 

 

Did you know?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up to 6,000 fatal crashes may be caused by drowsy drivers each year. In fact, driving drowsy has been compared to driving drunk.

    • Being awake for at least 18 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%.
    • Being awake for at least 24 hours is equivalent to having a BAC of 0.10% (this is 0.02% higher than the legal BAC limit in the Unites States). CDC - Drowsy Driving- Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2017, March 21). https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/drowsy_driving.html

 

 

How can we sleep better?

Knowing how important sleep is to health, how can we form healthy sleep habits to sleep longer, better, and more soundly? There are many ways we can adjust our daily lives to establish better sleep habits (aka sleep hygiene). Sleep hygiene includes many different habits, including to follow a consistent sleep schedule, make our bedrooms as comfortable as possible, avoid doing things other than sleep in bed (e.g., worrying, using electronics), and change our diet to promote better sleep.

Here are some simple daily changes to make to improve sleep quality:

  • Dim the lights around the house 1-2 hours before bedtime.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time each morning. Try to be consistent, even on weekends and days off.
  • Set an early enough bedtime to get the recommended hours of sleep.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine such as lighting a candle and reading a book.
  • Make sure the bedroom is quiet, clutter-free, and dark.
  • Set the bedroom to a comfortable, cool temperature. Since our body temperature lowers while we sleep, setting the thermostat to a lower temperature at night can help us sleep better. Sleep experts recommend a room temperature near 65° F.
  • Only use the bed for sleeping. Try to avoid other activities in bed such as watching movies, looking at a phone, or doing work.
  • Avoid using electronic devices (computers, phones, television) at least 1-2 hours before bedtime. Exposure to bright light (particularly blue light from electronic devices) can affect the ability to fall asleep. Blue light affects sleep cycles by disturbing the natural circadian rhythm. Removing electronic devices from the bedroom may help with this.
  • Avoid eating large meals before bedtime. If hunger strikes before bedtime, eat a light, healthy snack (such as an apple or banana with peanut butter).
  • Limit fluid intake before bedtime.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol may help to fall asleep, but it can disrupt the natural sleep cycle, causing sleep to be less restorative.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants (coffee, cigarettes, black tea, soda, chocolate, etc.) within 8 hours of bedtime.
  • Exercise earlier in the day. Although exercise can help with better sleep at night, rigorous exercise before bed may make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Avoid thinking about things that make you feel stressed or anxious before bedtime.

 

What should I do if I still can’t sleep well?

If you still experience trouble sleeping after adjusting your daily routine, consider visiting a doctor. While some medications may have potential to help with sleep, it is important to consult a doctor before trying sleep aiding medications or supplements. If you feel exhausted despite sleeping long enough, a doctor may want to assess for a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome, circadian rhythm disorders, sleep apnea and parasomnias can cause serious health complications and it is important they are treated properly (see Table 2 for definitions). If you think you may be suffering from a sleep disorder, it is important to consult a doctor.

If planning a doctor visit, keep a diary of sleep habits to bring to an appointment. Keeping a sleep diary may help in learning how to further change your sleep habits to improve sleep quality. For the diary, keep a record of when you:

  1. Go to bed
  2. Fall asleep
  3. Wake up
  4. Get out of bed
  5. Take naps
  6. Exercise
  7. Drink alcohol
  8. Consume caffeine
  9. Take any medications (i.e. prescriptions, supplements)

 

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Sleep and Sleep Disorders. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/index.html 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2020). Sleep and Sleep Deficiency. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency

National Sleep Foundation. (2020). Sleep Disorders. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders

American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2020). National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project. http://sleepeducation.org/healthysleep

Stages of Sleep. (2020, October 01). https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/stages-of-sleep

 

 

 

Table 2: Four Common Sleep Disorders and Definitions


Insomnia
Characterized by an inability to fall asleep and/or maintain sleep. May result in excessive daytime drowsiness and decreased ability to function in daily life.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
Characterized by an unpleasant “creeping” sensation in addition to aches and pains throughout the legs. RLS may result in an individual’s inability to fall asleep, causing them to be drowsy during the daytime.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders
Characterized by difficulty sleeping, extreme daytime sleepiness, insomnia, tiredness, decreased alertness, and problems with memory and decision-making. Circadian rhythm disorders occur when an individual’s sleep-wake cycle is not properly aligned with one’s environment and/or routine.

Sleep Apnea
Characterized by nighttime symptoms that include snoring, snorting, and periodic gasping by which sleep is consistently interrupted. May result in daytime drowsiness and can cause serious health complications if left untreated.

Parasomnias
Characterized by abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, or dreams while falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up. Parasomnias, including sleepwalking, sleep terrors, and sleep paralysis, are a group of sleep disorders involving unwanted events and/ or experiences that may make it challenging to sleep through the night.

CDC - Key Sleep Disorders - Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2014, December 10). https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/key_disorders.html

 

 

 

Sample sleep diary:

For a more in-depth personal sleep diary, please visit: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/inline-files/SleepDiaryv6.pdf

 

 

Part A: (Fill out Part A in the morning)

Today’s Date Example Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Time I went to bed last night: 11 p.m.              
Time I got out of bed this morning:
7 a.m.
             
Hours spent in bed last night: 8 hours              
Number of times I woke up last night and total time spent awake:
None
             
How long I took to fall asleep last night:
30 minutes
             
Medicines taken last night: None              
How alert did I feel when I woke up this morning?
1- Very tired
2- Somewhat tired
3- Awake but a little tired
4- Very awake

3
             

 

 

Part B: (Fill out Part B before bed)

Today’s Date Example Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Number of caffeinated beverages and time when I drank them:
1 drink, 8:00 a.m.
             
Number of alcoholic beverages and time when I drank them:
1 drink, 9:00 p.m.
             
Naptimes and length of naps today: 2:00 p.m., 30 minutes              
Exercise times and lengths today: 8:00 a.m., 45 minutes              
How tired did I feel today?
1- Very tired
2- Somewhat tired
3- Fairly awake
4- Very awake

30 minutes
             

 


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