The Importance of Sleep

Maybe you're so overloaded that you work late into the night and rise before dawn. Or you manage to get to bed early but toss and turn for hours. Whatever the reason, you're not getting enough sleep. And you're not alone. According to the World Sleep Foundation, almost half of all Americans are sleep deprived, many chronically. And the problem affects women more than men.

But despite our shrugging off fatigue with a few cups of strong coffee, this "sleep debt" eventually catches up with us. That's because sleep is not optional. We need it to function properly. According to experts, people who sleep fewer than six hours a night die sooner than those who sleep seven or more hours. And lack of sleep has a profound effect on all of our bodies' systems, so those who skimp on it are prone to weight gain, high blood pressure, moodiness, decreased productivity, and car accidents. Here are some strategies to help you make it through the night:

  • Keep a regular bedtime and waking schedule. If you normally rise with the sun to get ready for work, you'll no doubt be tempted to sleep in on your days off. Don't. Your brain's "circadian clock" regulates your sleep-wake cycle, and upsetting this rhythm can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night.
  • Set up a sleep-conducive environment. Have a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a hot bath, reading, or listening to soothing music. Make sure your room is as dark as possible by dimming digital clocks and installing blackout shades if necessary. If noise keeps you up, buy earplugs or a white-noise machine to block out the sound. And is your mattress comfortable? If it's more than ten years old, it may have outlived its usefulness.
  • Banish electronics from the bedroom. Surfing the Internet and watching TV before going to sleep can be very stimulating.
  • Finish dinner two to three hours before going to bed. Heavy meals can cause heartburn and discomfort, and drinking a lot of fluids can leave you running to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
  • Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages close to bedtime. Caffeine typically stays in your system for three to five hours, but some people are so sensitive that they feel the effects of caffeine 12 hours after ingesting it. Nicotine also acts as a stimulant, so if you smoke, quit. And forget the nightcap. While alcohol may lull you to sleep, it's also a prime cause of night wakings.
  • Get moving-but not too close to bedtime. Studies show that regular cardiovascular exercise helps people fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. Try to work out in the morning, afternoon or early evening, as breaking a sweat before climbing into bed can keep you revved up for hours.