For decades, we’ve read about the importance of diet and exercise to improve health. Yet, the foundation of health has a third leg that hasn’t been acknowledged—Sleep. Thankfully, that is all changing now as healthcare providers and the public are beginning to have a deeper appreciation for the importance of sleep.

So, why is sleep so important to your health? There are so many reasons, it would take volumes to explain all the ways sleep impacts our health. Let me highlight just a few for you now.

  • Ability to get along with others
  • Weight control
  • Physical health—blood pressure, inflammation, immune function
  • Enjoyment of life
  • Cognitive function, work performance, and motivation

This short list sure motivates me to get the sleep I need. Does it motivate you? Make a note of which of these areas are most important to you.

By far the most common sleep problem among working Americans is simply not getting enough sleep.

So now that you know more about what sleep does for you, let’s talk about the beginning steps to create that foundation of health.

Get the sleep you need

By far, the most common sleep problem among working Americans is simply not getting enough sleep. Every day people ask me “How much sleep does an adult need?” We think that most adults need about eight hours of sleep, which I’m sure you’ve heard before. However, there is a range of sleep needs, an individual may need plus or minus one to two hours. This is a range of six to 10 hours of sleep in healthy adults. The more important question to ask is “How much sleep do I need?” This is more important because if you are getting eight hours, yet are one of the people who need nine hours, you are going to be chronically sleep deprived, and suffer the consequences. So think back to a time you were really well rested and at the top of your game. How much sleep were you getting? If that was so long ago that you can’t remember then you are probably sleep deprived. Another indication you are not getting enough sleep is if you are waking to an alarm. Come up with a number of hours of sleep you do best with then schedule time for that amount of sleep.

Screen yourself for sleep disorders

If you are spending adequate time in bed, yet are still feeling unrefreshed and tired during the day, it may be because a sleep disorder is disrupting your sleep quality. Here are a few common sleep disorders to be aware of. Do you have any of these signs and symptoms? If so, be sure to talk to your practitioner about them.

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Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder where the airway is blocked (usually by the tongue) repeatedly during sleep for 10 seconds or more. Blood oxygen levels can drop, and at a certain point your brain wakes up for a few seconds, just long enough for your airway to open and a few breaths to get through. Unfortunately this can happen repeatedly through the night, contributing to high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease. Symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness (even falling asleep at the wheel!), morning headaches or memory problems, sore throat, and men may have erectile dysfunction. Your bedpartner may report loud snoring or that it sounds like you “hold your breath” during sleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and other movement disorders can disrupt your sleep quality and lead to unrefreshing sleep. RLS may feel like you just have to move your legs or more of pins-and-needles sensation. It’s usually worse in confined spaces like sitting in a theater, worse in the evening, and can interfere with falling asleep. RLS is also associated with other movement disorders that can occur during sleep.

Insomnia can be experienced in many ways. Difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night, being awake in the middle of the night, or waking too early and feeling unrefreshed during the day. I encourage you if you have insomnia to get help sooner than later so that you can enjoy the health that sleep provides. Treatment options span from cognitive behavioral therapy to nutritional supplements to pharmaceuticals.

There are many other sleep disorders that are not as common. If you have questions about your sleep symptoms or experience excessive daytime sleepiness be sure to talk to your practitioner about it.

Sleep at your right time

You’ve heard people say “I’m a night owl” or “I’m an early bird.” These are not just preferences, but are actually part of our natural physiology, our natural body clock. A growing area of understanding is the many ways that our body clock impacts our overall health and functioning. So honor your body clock by sleeping at the time that is right for you. If you are a night person, see if you can shift your schedule somewhat to accommodate sleeping in the morning until your natural wake time. Sound impossible? First look at your morning routine and shift as much as possible to the evening. Next, think about your work situation. Is there any possibility of working a little later? With creativity, you may just find your employer is willing to work with you. It can’t hurt to ask.

Make your bedroom a great place to sleep

It’s often noteworthy in my office how people accept sleep disturbances in their bedroom. Go through this checklist then take time this weekend to make your bedroom an ideal place to sleep. Your health and happiness will thank you! It should be as dark as possible (of course considering safety too)

  • Quiet, use a white noise machine or fan if necessary
  • Clean and uncluttered
  • No clock, or one that is not lit so you can’t look at it in the night
  • The mattress should be comfortable
  • Cool so you are never waking up too hot
  • Control light and dark

Light exposure impacts our sleep in several ways, so let’s be purposeful about getting light at the right time. Think about the light human beings have historically been exposed to, and recreate those patterns for yourself. It’s best to get bright, outside light in the morning for about 20-30 minutes, then in bursts throughout the day. In the evening, start turning the lights low in the hour or two before bed, so you will be sleepy at bedtime. For the hour before bed avoid electronic screens, as they give off blue light which is particularly disruptive to sleep.

Now that you know some of the fundamentals about sleep, consider this: take two weeks to really prioritize your sleep by following these 5 Steps. Do the steps every day, so you are creating a Healthy Sleep Lifestyle. Then at the end of the two weeks, check in with yourself: How has my energy been? How has my focus been? How have I been getting along with the people in my life? I hope you’ll enjoy the effects of healthy sleep, and join me in the getting the sleep you need, every night!