Sleep 101: The Importance of Sleep for Mental Health, Immunity, & More

Importance of sleep
Sleep 101: The Importance of Sleep for Mental Health, Immunity, & More
The importance of sleep affects mental health, immunity, injury recovery, and almost every aspect of human life. 
However, according to the National Sleep Foundation, roughly 45 percent of Americans don’t get enough sleep. (1)
What gives?
The truth is that modern life has the chips stacked against you. 
If you’re like most people, you use electronics at night, don’t have the healthiest diet, and don’t get enough natural sunlight.
To make matters worse, stress levels are on the rise. 
When everything adds up, it’s the perfect recipe for a sleep deprivation epidemic. 
Worst of all, lack of sleep increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 
There’s a lot of factors that go into a good night’s sleep, including:
  • Bedtime routine
  • Room environment
  • Body position
  • Nutrition
Are you doing everything you can to sleep more soundly?
In this ultimate guide to sleep, we cover everything you need to know about catching better ZZZ’s.
Let’s get started! 

How Much Sleep Should You Be Getting?

Adults should get at least 7 to 9 hours a night but this varies by age. (2)
Here are the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations according to age groups: (3)
  • Newborns: 14-17 hours
  • Infants: 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • School-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • Teens: 8-10 hours
  • Adults: 7-9 hours
  • Older adults: 7-8 hours
There’s also one last big difference in the importance of sleep and age…
Older kids, teens, and adults should get their sleep in one uninterrupted block at night, but it’s okay for babies and toddlers to get a lot of their sleep in little naps throughout that day.

Quick Tips for Better Sleep

If you don’t have time to read this whole article right now, here are a few simple sleep tips:
  • Eat your last snack at least two hours before bedtime
  • Limit caffeine after midday
  • Stop using electronic devices an hour before bedtime
  • Wear blue light glasses around the house and hour before bedtime and turn off most of the lights or set dim mood lights
  • Set the room to a cool temperature
  • Drink chamomile tea 15 minutes before bed
  • Use lavender essential oil aromatherapy
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Get plenty of exercise 
  • Meditate in the morning and shortly before bed
  • Eat magnesium-rich foods, like avocados and almonds, take magnesium supplements and soak in Epsom salt (magnesium) baths
  • Get at least 20-30 minutes of direct sunlight every day, preferably at the beginning of the day 
  • Take vitamin D supplements

How Much Did Our Ancestors Sleep?

Obviously, our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t sleeping on comfy mattresses and taking Epsom salt baths, but there’s still a lot we can learn from their natural sleep habits. 
To get some insight into our sleepy past, a UCLA-led team of researchers recently studied the sleep patterns of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania. (4)
Like our ancestors, the Hadza are hunter-gatherers. 
They sleep an average of 6.5 hours a night and go to bed roughly three hours and 20 minutes after sunset. They also rarely nap. 
In other words, they need less sleep than the average 9-to-5 human. 
At the same time, they have lower levels of obesity, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis. 
Insomnia is so rare that they don’t even have a name for it. 
Sounds like we could learn a thing or two from the Hadza!

Sleep Deprivation Statistics

Just how bad are Americans struggling with the importance of sleep?
Here’s the shocking truth according to the American Sleep Association: (5)
  • 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder
  • Insomnia occurs in about 30 percent of adults
  • 37.9 percent report accidentally falling asleep during the day at least once a month
  • 4.7 percent report nodding off while driving at least once a month
  • 35.3 percent of adults report getting less than than 7 hours of sleep a night
Sleep deprivation affects all aspects of your health. Shockingly, roughly 3-5 percent of adult obesity is caused by lack of sleep. 
The worst age groups for sleep deprivation are ages 40-59 and 20-39. (6)

The Importance of Sleep for Mental Health

The importance of sleep and mental health are two peas in a pod. 
In fact, mental health is the first thing to suffer due to lack of sleep. 
Poor sleep messes with your ability to balance hormones and regulate emotions.
Lack of sleep increases the risk of stress, anxiety, depression, poor memory, and short attention span.
Getting a good night’s rest is the foundation of how you perceive the world. 
In fact, severe sleep deprivation for three or more nights in a row can even cause hallucinations! 
However, a night or two of crummy sleep is all it takes to leave you in a cranky mood. 
If you don’t fix it, this can quickly spiral into hormone imbalances, anxiety, and depression.

Sleep and Exercise Recovery

Most people think that the gym is where you make you grow stronger, but it’s actually in the bed. 
Exercise breaks down the muscles and sleep is what builds them back up. 
As you sleep, the body is hard at work repairing damaged tissues and rebuilding them stronger than ever. (7)
However, the combination of hard exercise and poor sleep is a recipe for disaster. 
All that wear and tear without proper recovery increases the risk of inflammation, chronic pain, and injury. The importance of sleep cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to muscle repair.

Sleep and the Immune System

Poor sleep is one of the quickest ways to run down your immune system and get sick. 
Not only does sleep help you fight viruses, but it also reduces allergic reactions and improves your response to vaccines.
Sleep and immunity are a two-way street. When you have an infection, it can be hard to sleep. At the same time, consistent sleep is what strengthens immunity and helps you recover faster. 

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

The most common causes of sleep deprivation in adults are:
  • Chronic stress
  • Hectic, busy schedules
  • Demanding family and work situations
  • Health disorders like chronic pain, acid reflux, sleep apnea, and thyroid issues
  • Complications from medications or stimulants
  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco
  • Poor nutrition
  • Pregnancy, menopause, and other hormonal changes
  • Too much technology and blue light exposure
  • Inconsistent sleep schedule
  • Not enough exercise
  • Too little sunlight exposure
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Magnesium deficiency

Do You Suffer from Insomnia?

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. 
It’s considered chronic if it happens at least three nights a week for three months or longer. 
However, most people have acute (short-term) insomnia.
Symptoms of insomnia include:
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Hard time staying asleep
  • Trouble getting back to sleep if you wake up
  • Feeling low-energy and always tired
  • Not feeling rested when you wake up
  • Waking up too early
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings and irritability

Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Better Sleep

Better sleep comes down to better habits. 
That means eating better, exercising more often, managing stress, and avoiding stimulating activities too close to bedtime. 
Most people sabotage their sleep long before they hit the hay, and have no understanding of the importance of sleep. 
Here’s how to set yourself up for a better night’s sleep:

1. Get More Natural Light During the Day

How much sunlight do you get? If you’re like most Americans, you don’t get anywhere near enough sunshine and natural light. 
You need sunlight on your skin and natural sunlight on your eyes. Both are central to the importance of sleep.
Exposure to natural light at the beginning of the day kickstarts the body’s daytime hormone production. 
When natural light hits the retina in the eyes, it tells your brain to produce serotonin instead of melatonin. 
Ultimately, this helps regulate the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). 
Try sleeping with your bedroom curtains open. That way when the sun rises the natural light will help you wake up. 
At the same time, it’s important to get some direct sunlight on your skin. Morning is the best time to stimulate hormone production but anytime will do. 
When sunlight hits the skin, it makes a hormone called vitamin D. 
Vitamin D is one of the most important nutrients for mental health, yet most people in North America have extremely low vitamin D levels. 
Try to get at least 10-20 minutes of direct sunlight in the spring and summer. 
However, if you live farther north, you may need up to two hours of sunlight in the darker winter months. (8)

2. Exercise More Often

Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day (most days) is one of the best things you can do for better sleep. 
Squeezing in a quick workout in the morning can help jumpstart your wakefulness.
At the same time, all the energy you burn during your workout will help you feel more tired later at night. 
If you can’t find time to exercise in the morning, choose a time that works for you and stay consistent. 
You don’t have to work out every day, but getting at least a little exercise should help you feel more alert during the day and sleep more soundly at night. 

3. Eat Healthier Foods

As it turns out, healthy foods support healthy sleep. 
Some of the best foods for better sleep are:
  • Broccoli and cauliflower
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Almonds and most nuts (not peanuts or other legumes)
  • Wild-caught salmon
  • Grass-fed beef
Each of these foods contains nutrients that support the sleep cycle. 
Broccoli, for example, is high in magnesium—a mineral that calms the brain reduces anxiety, and supports sleep. 
Wild-caught salmon, on the other hand, is high in brain-healthy fats like EPA and DHA. 
These foods won’t knock you out on the spot, but they will support a natural sleep cycle. Come bedtime, your brain will be stocked up with the nutrients it needs. 
It’s equally important to avoid stimulating foods like simple carbohydrates and sugar. 
You should also avoid drinking caffeine too late in the day (2-3 pm at the latest). 

4. Stress Management

Nutrition, exercise, and sunlight all have one thing in common: they reduce stress!
Chronic stress increases hormones that disrupt sleep. At the same time, it weakens immunity, damages the gut lining, and makes it harder to fight food cravings. 
Here are a few stress management tips so that you can sleep more soundly:
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Brisk walks 
  • Lift weights
  • Breathwork 
  • Play and instrument
  • Essential oil aromatherapy, especially lavender 
  • Stretching

5. Avoid Blue Light at Night

Blue light is the part of the visible light spectrum that stimulates wakefulness. 
It’s emitted in large amounts from computers, TVs and phone screens. 
When you use electronic devices too close to bedtime, it keeps you awake by blocking melatonin production. 
Melatonin is the hormone that’s key to the importance of sleep. It peaks between 3-4 am and decreases at dawn to wake you up. 
During the day, the same cells that produce melatonin switch to serotonin. Then at night, they switch back to melatonin to help you catch some ZZZs. However, blue light can prevent your body from making the switch.
Instead of winding down before bed with a Netflix show, try reading a book, meditating, or listening to music.  
It’s also a good idea to dim the lights in the house because they emit blue light too.

6. Establish a Bedtime Routine 

Doing the same thing every night will help prepare your brain for bed. 
Your bedtime routine can include:
  • Reading a book for 20 minutes
  • Meditating
  • Journaling
  • Using essential oils
  • Taking an Epsom salt bath
  • Drinking a cup of chamomile tea
  • Taking a warm shower
Whatever you do, keep it consistent. 
Try to keep your room dark and cool (between 60 to 67 degrees is best). 
A cooler room will lower your core body temperature, which is good for sleep.
Next, let’s take a closer look at some natural sleep aids:

6 Natural Sleep Aids

Sometimes nutrition, exercise, and other healthy sleep habits aren’t enough when you’re stressed and overworked.
Fortunately, these natural sleep aids can help:
  1. Magnesium is a mineral that can help you wind down. Studies show that high magnesium levels can help you sleep deeper. Take it with calcium for better absorption. (9)
  2. Calcium is another mineral that is important to the sleep cycle. According to the European Neurology Journal, calcium levels are highest during deep rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Plus, calcium is important for creating melatonin. Most calcium supplements also contain magnesium and vitamin D for absorption. 
  3. Chamomile tea can relax the mind by increasing GABA in the brain. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter known to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. (10)
  4. Essential oil aromatherapy may promote sleep. One recent study found that a combination of lavender, bergamot, sandalwood, frankincense, and mandarin oil helped 94 percent of participants sleep better. (11)
  5. Passionflower is another herb that increases GABA. It has several benefits, including reduced anxiety and better sleep. You can even take it during the day to fight anxiety because it typically doesn’t cause drowsiness.
  6. Valerian root is another herb that boosts GABA. However, it’s quite a bit more sedative than passionflower so you should only take it at night shortly before bed.

Sleep Positions for Better Health

Congratulations… you’ve made it all the way to the holy grail of sleep: the bed!
But what if you just can’t seem to find a comfortable position? 
It doesn’t matter how disciplined you are with your healthy sleep habits, if your back and neck hurt you won’t be able to get a good night’s rest. 
There are three main sleep positions: back, side and stomach. 
Everyone has their preferences and there’s technically no right or wrong way to sleep. 
However, some sleep positions are more likely to cause bad side effects. 
Let’s take a closer look:

1. Side Sleeping

Roughly 69 percent of people sleep on their sides. (12)
According to some experts, this is the best sleep position (as long as you do it right). 
The key is to sleep with your legs curled in a fetal pose with a pillow between your knees. 
This position keeps the pelvis aligned and reduces lower back stiffness. 
Another major benefit of side sleeping is that you’re less likely to snore. 
However, side sleepers are more likely to experience nerve compression and develop sciatica. 
If you struggle with sciatica, side sleeping probably isn’t the best position for you. 
In order to keep the neck aligned, make sure to use a firm pillow. This should help take the pressure off your neck and shoulders.

2. Back Sleeping 

Many people find that sleeping on their back is the most comfortable. 
Back sleeping evenly distributes your weight and takes the pressure off the joints in your spine and neck. 
At the same time, it allows you to take deep, full breaths throughout the night. 
However, back sleeping, like all positions, has its drawbacks. 
For example, a lot of back sleepers use pillows that are too big. As a result, it kinks the neck. 
Back sleepers also tend to snore more. 
Luckily, the solution to both of these problems is to use a thinner pillow that doesn’t kink your neck. 
Neck alignment is key for being a nightly back sleeper without snoring or developing neck pain.

3. Stomach Sleeping 

Do you prefer to sleep on your stomach?
Unfortunately, most experts agree that this is the worst sleeping position. 
The reason is that sleeping on the stomach can create pressure in the back and neck.
Stomach sleeping causes the neck to twist and bend, which can strain the muscles in the neck and upper back. 
If you often wake up with a stiff or sore neck, now you know why!
This position may also restrict breathing because the bend in the neck increases when you breathe. 
Plus, stomach sleeping can have a negative impact on circulation and digestion because it puts pressure on the internal organs. 
It may even cause you to spend more energy while you sleep. As a result, you could wake up feeling less rested. 
However, these are all just generalizations. Depending on your unique body type, stomach sleeping might still be the best option for you.
If you have any more questions about the importance of sleep, feel free to contact us at Complete Care Health Centers. 
We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. 
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