You’re lying in bed before the workday. Maybe you have an important presentation. Perhaps you're looking forward to a special activity — or dreading a difficult one. Maybe you want a good night’s sleep just to get through the day. But no matter what you do, you just can’t fall asleep.
You keep looking at your phone thinking "If I fall asleep now I'll get seven hours of sleep. If I fall asleep now I get six..." And so on. It's driving you crazy.
We’ve all been there. While the occasional restless night is normal, even though your body may feel a little off the next day and you may suffer from daytime sleepiness, long-term sleep deprivation can lead to sleep debt (or deficit in sleep over a long period of time) and have serious consequences on your mental and physical health and well-being.
Sleep has an effect on nearly every facet of your waking life, including productivity, energy and psychological well-being. If you are routinely sleeping poorly, your psychological well-being, interactions with family and friends and even physical health could suffer.
Simply put, your body needs sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, it won’t function correctly.
Not only will your body feel worse, but sleep problems can also have a severe impact on your work performance. Sleeping is linked to memory, so you may be less able to complete certain tasks or do them as quickly or as well as you would normally if you’re sleep-deprived. It also concerns productivity, so you may not work as efficiently as you normally do when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep over the long term can have more severe consequences on your job performance and lead to burnout.
Some of the more serious consequences of lack of sleep on your life in general include:
• Brain fogging, which makes it difficult to focus and make decisions and increases your risk of accidents
• Depressed mood
• An increased risk for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and others
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7–9 hours of sleep per night for adults between the ages of 18-64. Of course, people’s individual sleeping needs vary depending on numerous factors, including specific age, sex, amount you exercise and many other considerations. (In summary, different people need different amounts of sleep.)
Accounting for these variations in people and sleeping patterns, the National Sleep Foundation also says as few as six hours and as many as 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night may be appropriate for young adults 18–25, and six and 10 hours respectively may be appropriate for adults ages 26 to 64. NSF does not recommend fewer than six hours or more than 11 hours for young adults, and fewer than six or more than 10 hours for adults.
While getting five hours of sleep occasionally is enough to function (though you will likely feel irritable and tired), doing so for several nights in a row can have detrimental effects. According to the study Prioritizing Sleep Health: Public Health Policy Recommendations, doing so decreases mental performance as much as drinking enough alcohol to have a BAC of 0.06 does.
It may be tempting to use the help of sleep medicine or another sleeping aid, but there are many steps you can take to solve sleep problems without these drugs. It’s also important to keep in mind the side effects of common prescription sleep medicines, including daytime drowsiness and dizziness, and more complex and potentially harmful side effects, including parasomnias (behaviors people may exhibit and actions people may take while asleep, such as sleepwalking, eating, or driving). Though rare, these disorders can result in serious harm. Be sure to ask a medical professional about all the possible side effects of sleep medications if she prescribes them to you.
There are many minor adjustments you can make to your routine to sleep better. Here are some tips to start:
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every night, including on weekends, helps regulate your body clock.
Turn off electronics with bright screens, including your laptop and television, which can stress or excite you, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Engage in a relaxing activity, such as reading a book or meditating. Make sure the activity doesn’t involve bright lights, which will only agitate you. A bedtime routine will help you associate certain activities with sleeping.
Not only will daily exercise improve your overall health and well-being, but it can also help you fall asleep and sleep more deeply. While rigorous exercise has the most benefits, even a short walk can improve your sleeping. (Don’t do it right before bed, though, since this will raise your body temperature and make it more difficult to fall asleep.)
Make sure you’re sleeping on a comfortable bed and pillows. Keep your bedroom relatively cool (between 60 and 67 degrees, according to the National Sleep Foundation) and free of noise and distractions.
Avoiding doing tasks like work on your bed will help you associate it with sleeping, rather than a place to be awake. Also, you should avoid taking naps during the day so you’ll rest better at night. If you absolutely need to do so, take your naps early in the day and keep them under 20 minutes.
Don’t eat a big meal right before bed. Cut the caffeine around noon. Alcohol and cigarettes can also disrupt your sleep, so try not to overdo it.
Avoid electronics and work you brought home because they might agitate you and keep you up. Instead, engage in a relaxing activity, such as reading a book, listening to music or meditating (another way to help you sleep better). If you do opt to read, avoid tablets that have backlights because they can also interfere with your ability to sleep.
If you have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, suffer from extreme sleep deprivation or insomnia or feel that your sleeping problems are taking a toll on your work, personal commitments, relationships and other aspects of your waking life, it is important to seek out the help of a medical professional who can determine the underlying causes and find an appropriate treatment for you.