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Why sleep is at the foundation of your well-being and what to do about it

Isn't it true that the first things that typically come to mind when we hear the term "health and well-being" have to do with diet and exercise? That's natural because it is a fact that what we consume and how much we move are non-negotiable aspects of a healthy life. However, it's important to take to heart that the very foundation of one's wellness is what occupies a third or more of our entire lifespan: sleep.

Even the very best eating plan and exercise programs cannot make up for a lack of sleep. Deep sleep is the most regenerative state we can be in and it is then that the body engages in the daily internal housekeeping chores to keep things in order and functioning well, which is why making it a priority should be a part of everyone's approach to optimizing overall wellness.

Though most all of us experience the occasional bout of sleeplessness or insomnia in the midst of various challenges that may rob us of the ability to simply hit the sack and shut down for several hours, research shows that up to 70 million adults in the United States have an on-going sleep disorder. And since a great deal of research links inadequate sleep to a variety of health risks, including heart disease, weight gain, depression, and long-term cognitive disorders, the importance of tending to this part of our lives cannot be overstated. To drive the point home, let's have a closer look at the relationship between sleep deprivation and some associated risks.

Cognitive function and disorders - It is during deep sleep that the brain actually shrinks, causing the space between the neurons within the brain to increase by up to 60%, which allows the cerebrospinal fluid to mix with the interstitial fluid (the fluid between the cells) and sweep through the brain washing out potentially harmful substances. This sheds light on why sleep deficits worsen many cognitive functions including memory, reasoning, alertness, and decision making, and are potentially associated with the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Weight gain - Even a single night of poor sleep is accompanied by a rise in ghrelin, a hormone that increases feelings of hunger and the drive to consume more calories. Fatigue also may lead to skipping exercise sessions or forgoing physical activity altogether, which would have the obvious effects on successful weight management.

Depression and anxiety - Sleep disorders are a symptom of both depression and anxiety, and can also be a factor in emotional health issues that make a person more emotionally fragile. Decreased mental awareness can alter perceptions, making what should be considered small challenges seem much larger than they actually are. The resulting stress can push the body into a state of hormonal imbalance, with too much time spent with what is known as the sympathetic nervous system keyed up in the fight-or-flight mode, which has systemic effects on the brain and other organs. This shows the bi-directional effect of sleep disorders and stress, with rising levels of each increasing problems with the other.

Cardiovascular disease and cardio-metabolic disorders - Studies have found that insufficient sleep appears to hamper a number of physiological processes that help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke due to its influence on a number of important variables that affect body composition, blood pressure, blood sugar regulation (increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes), cholesterol levels, and harmful inflammation (more on that below).

Immune system effects - Lack of quality sleep also triggers an increase in the production of immune system signaling molecules (called cytokines) that lead to inflammation. While the initial inflammation response to an injury or adverse health condition, and even a bout of intense exercise, is helpful, chronic systemic inflammation can lead to lasting health issues. It also appears to be the case that this process has a cascading effect that renders even helpful immune responses to become less effective, which can lead to an increased vulnerability to infectious diseases.

You might be thinking, "Well, this is depressing. It's even scary. Now I'm too stressed about my sleep to actually get to sleep! Wish I'd never read this stupid blog."

Please believe me when I tell you that there is hope!

You have the capacity to take matters into your own hands and make changes that can improve your sleeping patterns, which will positively affect almost everything about how you feel and operate day to day. It starts with acknowledging that high-quality sleep is a vital part of your approach to being as healthy, energetic, productive, and capable as you can be, and then committing to adopt habits that help promote this outcome. Following are some helpful and doable sleep hygiene tips that are worth trying out:

Create a relaxing sleep environment

  • Avoid working in bed or the bedroom, if possible.

  • Darken the room as much as possible.

  • Reduce as much noise as possible (using a white noise machine may help).

  • Cooler temperatures (60-68 degrees F) seem to be most conducive to sound sleep.

Follow a consistent sleep schedule

  • Going to sleep and rising at the same times each day strengthens the circadian rhythm, which is the body's internal process of regulating the sleep-wake cycle that repeats every 24 hours.

Follow a soothing bedtime routine

  • Engage in calming, quiet activities for 30 to 60 minutes before bed such as reading, listening to relaxing music, a warm bath, or meditation.

Limit exposure to bright light, especially blue light (TV, electronic devices), as you draw near bedtime

  • Stimulating lighting too close to bedtime can interfere with melatonin production, which is a hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm and makes us sleepy. Best to taper these sources starting an hour or more prior to hitting the sack, if possible.

Avoid eating a large meal too close to bedtime

  • Going to bed right after eating a heavy meal may result in feelings of discomfort and bloating, and necessitate having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Avoid caffeine later in the day and consider the effects of alcohol

  • Caffeine tolerance can vary from person to person, but its actions on the central nervous system lasts for hours, even if at a less-than-heightened level, which may adversely affect sleep quality.

  • Alcohol can cause people to fall asleep faster, but it can disrupt the second half of the sleep cycle.

Get exposure to sunlight early in the day if possible

  • This is another helpful practice to strengthen that all-important circadian rhythm.

Daily exercise is associated with better sleep quality, so ramp up your physical activity

  • Exercise increases the need for restorative sleep as the body seeks to replenish energy stores and repair tissues.

  • The mood improvement and reductions in feelings of stress that accompany routine exercise enhances sleep quality.

  • It's interesting to note that exercise close to bedtime does not appear to negatively affect sleep quality, so the timing of one's training session is not nearly as important as just getting it in most days of the week.

No need to take this on as an all-or-nothing checklist. Start by adding a few of these practices into your routine and see if it helps before taking on more. And by all means, as the expert in your own life you have the right to self-direct, so modify things in ways that fit your likes and dislikes, and align with your vision for what your best and most fulfilling life should be.

Here's to sweet dreams, friends!

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