Here’s everything you need to know about catching your ZZZs—including why it’s so important.
Sleep is as essential to our survival as water, food, and shelter, yet it tends to be pushed aside when it comes to priorities, considered an afterthought or even an inconvenience amid our busy schedules. That sleep ranks so low in terms of healthy lifestyle habits is a phenomenon that can have serious effects on our well-being.
“At the end of the day, we’re not valuing sleep,” says Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance in Calgary, Canada. “Most of the problem comes from people not understanding the health benefits of normal sleep.”
Lack of sleep and poor sleep are two distinct issues. In North America, 20 to 30 percent of the population has a sleep debt averaging approximately 10 hours. They are normal sleepers who lack sufficient shut-eye. Others have a sleep disorder—such as insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea (snoring)—that disrupts their nighttime rest.
Compromised sleep comes with high costs
Both come to the same end point: cognitive, behavioral, and physical impairment, along with a higher likelihood of developing chronic illness.
“When you either have not enough sleep or poor-quality sleep, you end up with cognitive impairment; your ability to think, your memory, and your concentration are impaired,” Samuels says.
“Classic signs of behavioral impairment are irritability, sleepiness, and fatigue. Classic examples of physical impairments would be increased appetite for calorie-dense food, leading to obesity or problems with weight control.
“As you accumulate sleep debt or have a sleep disturbance, you’re at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and diabetes,” he says. “There’s a higher risk of mood disorders. Anxiety is exacerbated.”
Blissful, sufficient sleep doesn’t have to be the stuff of dreams, however.
A lifetime of sound sleep starts early in life. Little ones need to learn to self-soothe so they can fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. Teens need to pay special attention to shut-eye: Sleep disturbances in teens can be associated with mental illness, such as anxiety and depression.
As they grow, kids need different amounts of sleep, ranging from 12 to 16 hours a day as infants to 8 to 10 hours as teens (including naps).
Developing healthy sleep habits
It’s crucial that a child’s brain recognizes nighttime, with a bedroom that’s quiet and dark. That same sleep-inducing environment is vital for teens as well.
Kids (and adults!) need a technology-free zone for good-quality sleep. That means not having a computer, mobile phone, tablet, gaming console, or other electronic devices in their room. Technology stimulates brain activity, making it harder to fall asleep, and electronic devices emit bright light that interferes with sleep.
Consistent sleep/wake times
Bedtime and waking time should be similar every day and not vary by more than 30 minutes between weekdays and weekends.
Adults typically sleep seven-and-a-half or eight hours a night, but that can range between six and nine hours.
Healthy young adults take 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, on average, and many adults enjoy consistent sleep: They go to bed at regular times, fall asleep quickly, and experience little wakefulness.
Maintaining healthy sleep habits
Give it priority
Deem sleep as important as exercise and diet when it comes to healthy living.
Make your room your sanctuary
Reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Keep stressful things—think piles of laundry or work projects—out of the bedroom.
Our sleep changes as we age. Older adults tend to go to bed earlier than younger adults, may sleep more during the day, and might experience more nighttime awakenings.
Aging can introduce sleep-disrupting factors. “In the elderly, chronic pain, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and other medical illnesses can disturb sleep,” Samuels says. He notes that certain medicines can have detrimental effects. It’s important for people to talk to their health care practitioner about the effects of drugs on their sleep.
Enhancing healthy sleep habits
Older people can improve their sleep by adopting regular sleep/wake cycles, being physically active, and diminishing worry as much as possible before bedtime.
Sleep disorders through the ages
Children and teens
Approximately 30 percent of kids have sleep problems.
Sleep-onset association disorder
Common in young kids, this occurs when a child needs to have their caregiver do certain things to help them fall asleep, whether it’s being fed, rocked, or having someone lie down next to them. When they wake up in the middle of the night, they can’t get back to sleep without those same activities.
How to fix it:
To overcome this problem, kids need to learn how to soothe themselves to sleep. It helps to have a bedtime routine, such as a warm bath followed by reading alone in bed.
Delayed sleep phase syndrome
Although this can occur at any age, teens are particularly prone to becoming “night owls,” developing a routine of going to bed late, sleeping in, and skipping breakfast.
How to fix it:
It’s important for teenagers to go to bed at roughly the same time every night and wake up around the same time daily. Also important is to avoid caffeine and other stimulants during the evening.
Adults and seniors
About 32 percent of adults and one-third of seniors have sleep problems.
Obstructive sleep apnea
This condition involves intermittent stops to breathing during sleep. Severe cases can raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Sleep apnea can be caused by obesity or being overweight, while drinking alcohol and smoking can also increase the risk.
How to fix it:
Along with healthy lifestyle changes, someone diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea can use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which delivers pressurized air to the nose through a mask.
Periodic limb movement disorder
Common in seniors, this condition involves repetitive, uncontrollable movements of the arms and legs during sleep that may cause “microarousals.” There may be a genetic link or other issues, such as iron deficiency or nerve or blood circulation problems.
How to fix it:
If iron deficiency is detected, supplementation may be suggested; in other cases, regular exercise can help alleviate symptoms.
Insomnia involves trouble falling asleep, waking up throughout the night, or waking too early. It becomes a clinical problem when people experience difficulty falling or staying asleep several nights per week, leading to mood disturbances, concentration problems, and overall fatigue.
How to fix it:
Relaxation techniques can help; so can going to bed only when you feel sleepy, exercising regularly (but not right before bed), and taking at least one hour to unwind before going to bed, whether by listening to music, reading, or writing down worries and setting them aside for the evening.