If the snooze button and a towering fountain drink are your morning panacea, you could be one of the millions of Americans who aren’t getting enough shut-eye. Fortunately, there is help—and it doesn’t involve another Diet Coke.
It’s a common scenario: You have just closed your eyes when the morning alarm blares on, so you hit the snooze button. And then you hit it again. And again. You make it to the office but can’t remember important details when your boss asks. In the afternoon, you’re in a fog, reaching for sugar, soda—anything to help you survive until 5 p.m.
Sound familiar? Then you might be one of the millions of Americans who aren’t getting enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a serious public health problem, ratcheting up rates of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension while driving down workplace productivity. In fact, 45 percent of Americans say that poor quality of sleep or not getting enough sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
The solution is glaringly clear: get more sleep. But in a fast-paced, plugged-in world, enumerating farm animals seems harder than ever.
Hard Day’s Night
Not getting enough shut-eye can cause a lot more damage than just leaving you yawning at your desk. “When people are sleep deprived, their reaction time is three times longer than normal,” says Michael Breus, a sleep specialist with a private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep.
Office dwellers feel the effects of a restless night from an emotional and cognitive standpoint. “If you don’t get rapid eye movement [REM] sleep, your brain can’t assimilate the information you get throughout the day: REM sleep is the thing that organizes information for you,” Breus explains. “Let’s say you’re a wealth manager and have to make decisions. In order to analyze information well, you need to have gotten a good night’s rest.”
Workplace efficiency also suffers when sleep is cut short. “Tired workers are not as productive,” says Gregory Dupont, a board-certified doctor at Utah Sleep and Pulmonary Specialists. “If we get too little sleep, or if the sleep is poor quality, then we suffer from fatigue and lack of concentration. Our attention wanders, we do not learn as well, we have memory lapses, and we have trouble focusing.”
Another major side effect: irritability. “Emotions are exacerbated when you are sleep deprived,” Breus says. The less sleep you get, the more reactive you become, which can be bad news for your colleagues. “If you’re the boss and you haven’t gotten enough sleep, you’re going to start screaming and yelling, and that’s not good for morale,” he says.
So how much sleep do you really need? Typically, seven hours per night is ideal for adults, according to the NSF, but it can vary. To help his patients determine their individual needs,
Breus advises people to start with a desired wake-up time and count back seven and a half hours, since you need five ninety-minute sleep cycles to get an optimal night’s rest.
A typical sleep cycle starts with non-REM sleep, followed by a shorter period of REM sleep, and then it starts all over again. “If you wake up without an alarm, you’ve found your sleep balance, but if you continue to require an alarm, go to bed earlier,” he says. “Keep experimenting until you naturally wake up earlier.”
The key to getting a good night’s rest is sticking to a schedule. To set your internal clock, it’s crucial to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. “You should never sleep in more than thirty minutes on the weekends because in two days you’ll change your entire circadian rhythm,” Breus cautions.
When bedtime rolls around, Breus recommends giving yourself a power-down hour to prep for rest. Spend the first twenty minutes finishing up tasks, like ensuring the kids’ lunches are packed and the back door is locked. Take the next twenty minutes to do all your nightly hygiene. Finally, use the last twenty minutes for unplugged relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation, gentle stretching, or mindful meditation.
This means powering off the TV and anything with a screen, including your phone and e-reader, since the blue light they emit can suppress melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep.
“Our pace of life has increased, and there are many more ways that we can distract ourselves in the evening—TV, texting, phone calls, and emails,” Dupont says. “We tend to sacrifice sleep for more interesting things, but in the long run we are sacrificing our health and our enjoyment of day-to-day life.”
Not catching enough zzzs on a regular basis also takes a toll on your health. Sleep deprivation leads to lower immune function—meaning you’re more likely to catch a cold—as well as increased cortisol levels, prediabetes, elevated blood pressure, and increased heart and blood-vessel disease. Daytime fatigue is also associated with increased automobile accidents.
Sleep can even impact your weight. BYU researchers found that consistent in-to-bed and wake-up times are associated with lower body fat. The research, which was published online in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed that getting fewer than six and a half or more than eight and a half hours of sleep per night is linked to higher body fat. Researchers also noted that quality of sleep is crucial to body composition.
“Sleep deprivation, even for one night, has been shown to increase hunger feelings, along with the levels of the hormone ghrelin,” Dupont explains. “Ghrelin stimulates our appetite and is increased with sleep deprivation. The hormone leptin, conversely, suppresses our appetite and has been shown to decrease when we get too little sleep.” The less sleep you get, the more your body craves carbs and sweet treats, he adds.
There are better ways to fight off sleepiness than a midafternoon chocolate chip cookie. “The best answer is to take a quick nap, though most workplaces do not allow this,” Dupont concedes. “Even a short nap will reduce sleepiness for an hour or two.” If a nap isn’t possible, Breus recommends taking a quick walk outside, since sunlight reduces melatonin, which triggers sleepiness.
And though sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta may seem like a fast fix, they have their own drawbacks. “Sleeping pills are a last-resort solution,” Dupont warns. “Chronic use of sleeping pills has been linked to auto accidents and increased mortality in large-population studies.”
Ultimately, there is no substitute for a good night’s rest. “Life is too short to spend it tired and sleepy,” Dupont says. “Get exercise most days, give yourself all the sleep you need and deserve, and you will not only be more productive, you will enjoy life more.”
Just as adults need enough zzzs to have a productive day at work, children need a good night’s rest to perform well at school. “Kids are similar to adults in this respect,” Dupont says. “Too little sleep impairs attention, concentration, memory, and performance. We learn best when we are well rested.”
In fact, a study by McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, published in Sleep Medicine, found that good quality rest is strongly linked to higher academic performance in math and languages.
How much sleep your kids need depends on their age: preschoolers need ten to thirteen hours, grade-school kids need nine to eleven hours, and teens need eight to ten hours.
When it comes to helping Junior fall asleep, the same rules apply: have a sleep schedule, exercise regularly, and power down before bed. Set parameters to ensure a good night’s sleep.
For example, to eliminate your teen’s late-night streaming, shut down the Wi-Fi at a predetermined time or collect all electronic devices before bedtime. Regardless of the system you use, the most important thing is sticking to it. “Give them a routine they can follow on a regular basis,” Breus says. “Don’t let the kids watch the rest of their show—it needs to be about consistency.”
Article written by Celia Shatzman
Illustration by Adam Howling
About the Author
Celia Shatzman lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, her work has appeared in ForbesLife, Teen Vogue, New York, USA Today, Time Out New York, and Family Circle, among others. When she’s not writing, Shatzman enjoys traveling, playing with her rescue dog, Olive, and, of course, getting plenty of sleep.