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This article first appeared on NBC's BETTER.
Life is busy. And let’s face it — who doesn’t struggle with fitting work, play, working out, eating right, volunteering, detox-time and the gazillion other things we want to do in any given 24-hour day? But the evidence shows that if you’re one of the one in three Americans who steals time from the seven to nine hours of sleep adults should be clocking, you’re not doing yourself or your health any favors.
Studies have shown that cutting your sleep short for even just one night directly affects the levels of the hormones that control appetite(causing you to feel hungrier), makes you more likely to have an accident driving and on the job, leaves you less focused, makes you less able to control your emotions (and more likely to overreact emotionally in a situation), makes you more likely to catch a cold and may actually damage brain tissue.
And over time, being chronically sleep deprived (or having a disrupted sleep schedule) has been linked to a higher risk of stroke, some cancers, diabetes, heart disease, being obese and dying younger from any cause.
Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep is associated with a lot of negative outcomes, Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, Chief of Sleep Medicine in the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News BETTER. The bottom line, she says: “If you want to enjoy healthy aging get sufficient sleep and at the right time.”
For most people getting enough sleep means turning in earlier at night. From a physiological standpoint, sleep quality is better in a darker environment and the morning daylight helps our body clocks run on time (and thus enhances sleep quality), Zee says. Plus — most people have fairly inflexible times we need to get up for work or school, she says. “So, it’s not much of a choice other than [being] chronically sleep-deprived.”
So, this week, challenge yourself to get to bed a full hour earlier than usual. Here are some tips for beating whatever it is that’s getting in the way of your shuteye.
If you can't stop scrolling through your Facebook feed...
You try turning in a full hour earlier than usual, hit the lights, quickly set the alarm on your phone (eight full hours from now!) and decide to quickly check if anyone else has commented on that great photo of your puppy you posted before dinner… And two hours later you find yourself scrolling through all 650-plus photos of your high school crush’s tacky wedding.
“Staying ‘plugged in’ keeps the brain in daytime/work mode,” says Janet Kennedy, PhD, a clinical psychologist, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor and author of The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You). The brain needs a period of time between daytime activity and sleep as a buffer zone, she says. “Otherwise the brain has to calm down once you’re in bed — and that leads to racing thoughts and poor sleep quality.”
Plus, screen time before bedtime (or more specifically the blue light that screens give off) actually suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps your body drift to dreamland, and has been linked to worse sleep quality.
Zee suggests leaving time after dinner for any email- or Facebook-checking you plan to do for the night — before you brush your teeth, she says. And prioritize, she says — don’t reply to anything that isn’t urgent. (Dimming your screen’s light or filtering out the blue light can help, too, she added.)
If eating dinner is the last thing you do...
Italians know how to do food and wine — but their late dining schedule is not going to help with a healthy sleep schedule. Foods that are heavy, fatty, fried or spicy are tougher for the body to digest and can make it harder to sleep shortly after consuming. Late dining is also linked to changes in metabolism that can lead to weight gain, Zee says (that’s not the case though in some instances, such as people who are getting a lot of physical activity and for people who consume healthy pre-bed snacks).
Aim to stop eating at least three hours before you hit your pillow, Zee recommends. And if you do get hungry after dinner, pick a light snack with tryptophan (an amino acid known to potentially make you drowsy), such as a banana or warm milk, Zee says. Or pick a healthy snack that combines protein and carbs to satisfy your hunger and keep you full throughout the night.
If your typical evening includes a twilight workout...
Regular exercise is linked to a myriad of mental and general health benefits — and has been linked to improved sleep quality, too (in terms of how long it takes you to fall asleep, how much deep sleep you get and how long you sleep in total). But too much activity too close to bedtime may stimulate the body and increase body temperature, making it tougher to fall asleep, Zee says.
If you’re working out in the evening, try non-strenuous anaerobic exercise — think yoga, walking or light weight lifting — which can help you relax in the evening. For some groups of people, those activities have been shown to make it easier to fall sleep, Zee says.
And keep in mind that people’s body physiology varies, so if you’re a post-dinner jogger and you sleep like a baby, no reason to ditch your trainers.
If your mind starts racing the moment you hit the pillow...
Your eyes are drooping, your body is heavy, but when your head makes contact with your pillow, your mind starts running like it’s in the Olympic trials. Get out of bed and do something else to distract yourself and make you sleepy, Kennedy, says. “You want to maintain your bed as a happy and restful place."
Try reading fiction to get your mind off whatever’s monopolizing your thoughts, she says. Other fixes: the National Sleep Foundation recommends sipping chamomile tea, meditating, taking a hot shower or designating a specific time of the day (that’s not right before bed) to worry about the things that are stressing you out to help you relax, so you can easily nod off when it’s time to sleep.
If happy hour lasts all night...
A drink (or a few) in the evening may make it easier to nod off initially, but it can wreak havoc on the quality of your sleep you’re getting. Research that monitored brain activity in individuals who drank alcohol within an hour of sleep shows that it sends the brain quickly into deep sleep — but there’s a rebound effect in the second half of the night where the brain’s not getting adequate deep, restorative sleep it needs.
No need to skip the nightcap all together — but do enjoy it in moderation. Data suggests that a blood alcohol concentration of 0.03 may be low enough to not disturb your sleep. (That’s between one and two drinks, depending on your gender, weight and how fast you’re drinking.) And avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
If you cannot stop hitting the snooze...
Yep, this morning habit is a sneaky and notorious sleep sabateur. Those “precious” extra minutes of sleep you’re getting are light and poor quality, Kennedy explained. The bottom line: they’ll actually leave you feeling groggier when you do get up. And the later you do finally get out of bed, the harder it’ll be to fall asleep when it comes time to turn in that evening, she says.
If you're an extreme night owl...
Sleep experts suspect that most people have a combination of “night owl” and “early bird” tendencies — which can be dictated in a big way by our environment, age and surroundings. But there’s also a small percentage of people whose brains have a specific architecture that causes them to be extremely late sleepers and risers or extreme early risers and sleepers. (The prevalence for people with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder is thought to affect 0.1 to three percent of the general population and is more common in adolescents and young adults.)
If your body clock feels slightly off when you want to get up in the morning or call it quits at night, give your body the physiological cues it needs to sleep, Zee says. Avoid light in the evening and eating late —and get out into the sunlight (or other bright light) in the morning and keep your sleep-wake schedule consistent, she says. And if that still doesn’t help, a sleep specialist can prescribe various regimens of timed light therapy, physical activity and melatonin to help better align an individual’s body clock with their work and social schedule, Zee added.