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What does it mean to have healthy sleep?
Sleep isn’t just a pause in your day. It’s an essential part of your health and well-being. Learn why a good night’s rest is so important, and get some strategies for sleeping more soundly.
Getting a good night’s sleep seems like it should be so easy. You literally just have to lie in bed and close your eyes. If only. In fact, 1 in 3 Americans don’t get enough z’s on a regular basis. Our busy, stressful lives often get in the way of a good night’s rest.1
But the fact is that getting enough sleep is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being.
What does healthy and not-so-healthy sleep look like? And how can you get the rest you need? Keep reading for all the details.
Why is sleep so important?
It’s easy to think of sleep as downtime. But your body and brain are actually hard at work. Important tasks that keep you healthy happen while you’re asleep.
Blood pressure and levels of stress hormones dip during the night. And blood sugar levels regulate. Plus, your brain uses sleep as a chance to organize information and memories from the day. So you can even get smarter while you snooze.2
“All of the learning that we do during the day is stored and organized in our brains during sleep,” says Mark Zaetta, MD. He’s an internal medicine physician for Optum Health in Tucson, Arizona.
Sleep is a must for your overall well-being. (There’s a reason it’s been a vital part of human life for more than 100,000 years.) Not getting enough in the short term can make it hard to focus, think and do everyday tasks.
How does sleep do that? Because when you don’t get the rest you need, a lot can go wrong and stress your body. Blood pressure levels can go up. Levels of inflammation rise. And blood sugar may be harder to manage. Over time, those changes can lead to disease.
How much sleep do I need?
Sleep needs can vary from person to person. But most adults should get seven hours or more per night. And eight or nine hours of rest may be even better, says Dr. Zaetta. Kids need more sleep. Take a look:4
- Newborns: 14 – 17 hours (half during naps)
- Infants: 12 – 16 hours (4 – 5 hours during naps)
- Toddlers: 11 – 14 hours (2 – 3 hours during naps)
- Preschoolers: 10 – 13 hours
- Children 6 to 12: 9 – 12 hours
- Teenagers: 8 – 10 hours
- Adults: 7– 9 hours
What is healthy sleep?
A good night’s rest is about more than just being in bed for seven hours or so, though. The quality of sleep you get is also important.
Your brain needs to go through a series of sleep cycles. These cycles help you get the best kind of rest.
You may have heard of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. During the night, you rotate through 90- to 110-minute cycles of these two stages. And changes happen in the brain that help lock in memories and improve learning and focus.
Sleep is also when your body goes into fix-it mode. Toxins get flushed out, and muscles, bones and other tissues are repaired. Your body also strengthens its ability to fight germs.
The phases of sleep help you feel rested and energized in the morning. On an ideal night, you cycle through each stage of sleep four to six times to get a healthy amount of sleep.3
Sleep can naturally become more fragmented with age. As a result, older adults may have trouble getting the deep, restful sleep they need. That can make quality rest more challenging, even though the need for it doesn’t change.
Consistency is also key, no matter how old you are, says Carol Rosen, MD. She’s a sleep medicine specialist in Cleveland. “Sleep has to be the right duration and stay on a regular schedule,” she says.
A little variation from night to night is OK. “But you really want to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day,” adds Dr. Rosen. For example, you can’t stay out super late and expect to make up that sleep debt the next night.
Dr. Zaetta agrees: “Looking at my patients over the years, someone who has a regular bedtime and wake time does better than someone who doesn’t.”
What habits can support healthy sleep?
The No. 1 rule is to keep disruptions to a minimum, says Dr. Rosen. Disruptions can come in many forms, from a sleep disorder to noise and stress.
Limit screen time before bed. The artificial light from phones and laptops decreases melatonin production. Melatonin is a chemical that helps you sleep. Your body naturally makes more of it in the evening and less in the day. But using devices at night can throw off that process, says Dr. Rosen.
Make your bedroom cool, dark and quiet. The ideal temperature for sleeping is around 65 to 68 degrees. Close the blinds and use earplugs or a white noise app on your phone if sounds tend to wake you up.
Limit alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime. Both can disrupt your natural sleep phases.
Skip big meals at night. That can also mess with your sleep phases and cause heartburn that keeps you up.
Stick to a sleep schedule. Commit to going to bed and waking up around the same time (even on weekends). It regulates your body’s internal clock and makes it easier for you to fall asleep and wake up.
Exercise. Regular activity can prep your body for a good night’s sleep. Experts aren’t totally sure how this works, but it may help you de-stress so your mind winds down. Plus, exercise is just physically tiring.
Reduce stress. If you’ve been awake at 3 a.m. while your brain spins, you know why this is so important. It’s one of the biggest sleep disruptors. To feel calmer in minutes, try these tips.
Stock up on all your health essentials at the Optum Store. From sleep aids to pain medications, we have you covered. Shop now.
What should I do if I can’t sleep?
If you have a hard time nodding off, take a look at your sleep habits and see where there’s room for improvement, says Dr. Rosen.
Both Dr. Zaetta and Dr. Rosen agree that sleep drugs can help in certain cases. But they usually aren’t the best answer. They can be habit-forming. And they don’t mimic natural sleep. “You can knock yourself out with medication. But there’s a difference between unconsciousness and true sleep,” says Dr. Zaetta.
Instead, they suggest you focus on the habits above. Improve the space where you sleep. And find a way to cut down on your stress level. “The root cause for many people who have trouble sleeping? It’s that they haven’t come to terms with some sort of stress in their life,” says Dr. Zaetta. “They ruminate about it on a conscious or unconscious level. And it is very disruptive.”
You can also try reading a book in dim light or listening to calming music. Or turn on a sleep app that guides you through meditation to help you settle down at bedtime.
Need help getting a handle on your stress levels? Optum has digital mental health support tools that can help. Work with someone one-on-one from AbleTo.
What are sleep disorders?
If you consistently have a problem falling or staying asleep, you may have a sleep disorder. You could also have a sleep disorder if you often wake up feeling tired even though you’ve been in bed for seven hours or more. The four most common types of sleep disorders include:
- Insomnia. This involves trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. You may often wake up during the night or early morning and have a hard time nodding off again. People with insomnia tend to feel really tired during the day. They may also have trouble functioning. Care may involve sedatives or cognitive-behavioral therapy to address sleep issues.
- Sleep apnea. This is a problem with breathing during sleep. Symptoms include gasping for air, snorting during sleep and loud snoring. Doctors usually suggest using a special machine called a CPAP. It’s designed to help you breathe normally during sleep.
- Restless legs syndrome. This causes an uncomfortable sensation in your legs. You may also kick your legs or sleepwalk. It can be related to a brain chemical abnormality. Medications, such as Mirapex® and Neupro®, can help ease the symptoms.
- Narcolepsy. This disorder is often described as “sleep attacks.” You may feel sudden muscle weakness and sleepiness. Treatment includes medication and behavioral interventions.
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How do I know if I have a sleep disorder?
If you have a lot of trouble falling or staying asleep, you may have a sleep disorder.
Feeling sluggish or unfocused during the day is another sign. So is the overwhelming need to nap. But sometimes a partner may be the one to notice an issue. They may see you gasping for air or kicking in the night.
Be sure to talk to your doctor and see if you should visit a sleep specialist. They can determine if you need a sleep study. This test is done in a clinic and can more accurately find the cause of your sleep problems.
Remember: Bad sleep is bad for your health and well-being. You deserve sweet dreams.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and sleep disorders. Last reviewed April 15, 2020. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Sleep is essential to health: An American Academy of Sleep Medicine position statement. Published October 1, 2021. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. Physiology, sleep stages. Last updated April 28, 2022. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much sleep do I need? Last reviewed March 2, 2017. Accessed August 9, 2022.