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The big health benefits of sleeping more (and how to do it)
Your body is hard at work while you sleep. Learn why getting a solid seven to nine hours is important for your health and how to get the z’s you need.
Did you know that you spend about one-third of your life asleep? This sounds like a lot until you realize how much sleep matters in keeping you healthy and happy.
Think about how you feel after a bad night’s sleep. You might be fuzzy-headed, sluggish and crabby the next day. And that’s just one night. When you sleep poorly for months at a time, your risk of serious diseases such as diabetes and heart disease goes up.
“Many people try hard to be healthy during the day by eating well and exercising. But they overlook the importance of sleep,” says Raj Dasgupta, MD. He’s a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and a clinical associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Being able to function during the day relies on what happens while you’re asleep.”
Daily perks of getting enough sleep
Experts say you should get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.1 Here are some things that happen when you sleep:
- Your brain processes and stores information from the day. This is important for storing memories for the long term.
- The brain releases growth hormone and other chemicals. They repair your organs, muscles and cells.
- Immune cells called cytokines work harder. (These cells fights germs and other invaders.)
- Your brain even “cleans” itself while you sleep. It clears out waste products it produces when performing everyday tasks.
“Many of these processes happen during an important stage of sleep. It’s called slow wave, or deep sleep,” Dr. Dasgupta says. If you get just a few hours of sleep a night, the quality of your sleep will be poorer, he explains. This is because your body doesn’t spend as much time in deep sleep.
Poor sleep can affect your mood, your energy levels and your ability to focus. Lack of sleep slows your reaction time and your ability to make good decisions. This can be dangerous if you’re driving or operating machinery. In fact, missing just an hour or two nearly doubles your risk of a car crash.2
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How sleep improves your long-term health
Getting enough sleep protects you from many health problems. Below are some of the most important.
Heart disease. Snoozing well each night reduces your risk of heart disease. It’s the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. During sleep, your heart rate and blood pressure fall. This means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.3 Proper sleep also helps keep cortisol at a safe level. This stress hormone can hurt the body if it stays too high over a long period of time.
Poor sleep night after night can be bad for your heart. It can lead to heart disease, as well as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Plaque buildup in your arteries
Type 2 diabetes. Getting seven to nine hours can protect you from type 2 diabetes.4 Not getting enough sleep makes you less sensitive to insulin. (Insulin is a chemical that helps your body use blood sugar for energy.) When this happens, the body makes a lot of insulin to keep your blood sugar levels normal. But if your body doesn’t make more insulin, your blood sugar can rise, too. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Weight gain. Getting more sleep can help you control your weight. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body makes too much of a chemical that makes you feel hungry. The result? You eat more than you normally would. And you crave foods that are high in fat and sugar.
When you’re able to stay at a healthy weight, you have a lower risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and more.
Best advice for a great night’s sleep
Now you know why you need to get more sleep. These tips can help you snooze better at night.
Stick to a schedule. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.5 It may be tempting to stay up late and sleep late on the weekend. But that just makes it harder for you to wake up on Monday morning.
Don’t eat too late. Eating a full meal close to bedtime can lead to heartburn. Symptoms of heartburn include a burning pain in the chest. This can stop you from falling and staying asleep. If you’re hungry before bed, have a small, light snack like a banana. Or eat some almonds or a low-sugar yogurt cup.
Nap wisely. If you need to take a nap during the day, keep it short (20 minutes or less) and do it before 3 p.m. Long, late naps make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Cut down on screen time. The blue light from your phone, tablet or computer screen messes with melatonin. This is a chemical that naturally rises near bedtime and makes you feel sleepy. If it’s too bright, your body thinks it’s still daytime and suppresses melatonin. Turn off devices at least 30 minutes before bed.
Set a caffeine cut-off time. The caffeine in coffee, tea and soda takes a long time to wear off. It may keep you awake if you drink it late in the day. Switch to caffeine-free drinks four to six hours before you go to bed, says Dr. Dasgupta.
Exercise regularly. Working out has been shown to help you fall asleep more quickly and improve your sleep quality. And don’t worry about exercising too close to bedtime. One study found that exercising two to four hours before bed doesn’t make it harder to fall asleep.6
Skip the nightcap. It’s true that having an alcoholic drink before bed may help you fall asleep. But it disrupts your sleep later in the night.
Limit fluids. Drinking too much water before bed means you’ll need to get up in the middle of the night to pee.
Give your bedroom a makeover. Create a calm, soothing space for sleeping. Dim bright lights before bed (and don’t sleep with the TV on). Get room-darkening shades or curtains for the windows so your room is as dark as possible. Use a free white noise app on your phone to block out noise. And keep the temperature between 60° F to 67° F.
Create a calming bedtime routine. Prep your body for sleep by doing something relaxing. Some examples: reading a print book, meditating or writing in a journal.
If you follow these tips and still struggle to get a good night’s sleep, see your doctor. They may suggest sleep medicines. Or you may need to try cognitive behavioral therapy-insomnia (CBT-I). It can help you deal with the thoughts and worries that are keeping you from sleeping well. Your doctor will also want to rule out health problems that might be affecting your sleep. For example, such as sleep apnea or a thyroid problem.
You don’t have to just accept being a poor sleeper. Team up with your doctor to create a plan that works for you.
Stock up on all your healthy sleep essentials in one swoop at the Optum Store. From pain medication and sleep trackers to calming aromatherapy, we have you covered. Shop now.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. How much sleep is enough? Last updated March 24, 2022. Accessed June 30, 2022.
- AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Acute sleep deprivation and risk of motor vehicle crash involvement. Published December 2016. Accessed June 30, 2022.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Why is sleep important? Last updated March 24, 2022. Accessed June 30, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep for a good cause. Last reviewed July 28, 2022. Accessed August 21, 2022.
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Healthy sleep habits. Last updated August 2020. Accessed June 30, 2022.
- Sleep Medicine Review. The effects of evening high-intensity exercise on sleep in healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Published August 2021. Accessed June 30, 2022.
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