Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

A 20-something year old man, eyes closed, hand across his face. He seems tired or stressed.
Fatigue, poor memory, and lowered mental acuity result from poor sleep. Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but a third of us fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis. A chronic lack of sleep has consequences for our daily functioning, mood, mental and physical health, as well as workplace productivity and worker and public safety.

Our bodies use the hours of sleep to restore our brains, heal from injury and illness, and develop memories. During sleep, blood pressure goes down, blood sugar control may improve, the immune system recharges, the hunger impulse is regulated, and mental sharpness rebuilds. Conversely, when we get too little sleep, we’re at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, depression, and accidents related to drowsiness and slowed physical and cognitive reaction time and accuracy.

Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, can cause loss of sleep. Underlying health problems like obesity and heart failure can contribute to sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops for short periods during sleep because the airway becomes blocked. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that half of adults experience short-term insomnia, while 10 percent suffer from long-lasting insomnia.

Five young adults running through a field.
Physical activity and exposure to sunlight during the day are helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Recent research has found a strong connection between stress and sleep. Pain, worry, and anxiety stimulate stress hormones, which can disrupt sleep. In an unfortunate feedback loop, people who get less sleep than they need experience more stress.

Stress inappropriately activates the part of the brain that regulates sleep and body temperature. The untimely arousal of these brain cells interrupts sleep cycles, causing shortened sleep episodes. With a good night’s sleep, we should experience four 90-minute sleep cycles. During the first two of three non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep cycles, our heartbeat, brain waves, and breathing slow down and body temperature lowers. In the third NREM phase, the body releases growth hormone to repair the body, keep the immune system healthy, and improve memory. The fourth sleep stage is when rapid eye movement (REM) occurs. This is when we experience dreams, process emotions, and form memories. REM sleep is also important for brain development.

A young Asian woman holding a pencil in her teeth, staring at a laptop. Impression is that she is frustrated and stressed.
Stress and anxiety can cause irregular, shortened sleep cycles that deprive the brain and body of necessary health processes. Photo by Jeshoots on Unsplash

Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends practicing nightly stress relief techniques to activate the body’s natural relaxation response and prepare for sleep. Gentle breathing exercises combined with progressive muscle relaxation slow heart rate and calm the body and mind. To get started, sit or lie down in a comfortable position in a quiet place and breathe in slowly and deeply, then breathe out slowly. Close your eyes and repeat for about five minutes. While taking these calming breaths, tense up a muscle group as you breathe in, then relax the muscles as you breathe out. Start at your head and move down muscle groups until you reach your toes.

CDC makes these recommendations for achieving better sleep:

  • Soak up morning sunlight or take a lunchtime walk to increase levels of the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Get plenty of exercise during the day.
  • In the hours before bedtime, avoid:
    • Exercise
    • Heavy meals
    • Alcohol
    • Foods high in fat or sugar
    • Artificial light, including the light emitted from smart phones, TVs, and computer screens.
  • Relax with a book or soothing bath before bedtime.
  • Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time every morning, allowing for 7-9 hours of sleep in the schedule.
  • Make sure the bedroom is dark, quiet, at a comfortable temperature, and relaxing.

If practice and consistency don’t help improve your sleep, talk with your doctor. Sleep is a vital part of healthy living.