You may think you can push through when you’re tired. In fact, the ability to operate on little-to-no sleep is a badge of pride for some. While you might feel functional when you are sleep deprived, sleep is incredibly important for your mental and physical health.
We still have a lot to learn about sleep - including all the reasons we do it, but scientific research has already given us a wealth of knowledge.
Sleep helps you function.
Sleep supports a variety of your body’s systems, your ability to recognize emotions, your judgement, the way you handle interpersonal interactions, and your mental alertness. Both sleep quality and duration matter, with disrupted sleep and sleep deprivation being linked to memory issues, poor mood, decreased ability to retain information. When sleep disturbances are persistent, poor sleep has been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity, and depression (1-4).
Your body is trained to sleep a certain amount at certain times.
On average, adults between 18 and 60 years old need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night (some people might need a little more or less). Your sleep is largely influenced by an internal system that regulates your feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over 24-hour periods, called your circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle) (3,5).
Your circadian rhythm, in turn, is controlled by your hypothalamus (a small, but important, part of your brain), but outside factors also play a role. Light is a great example. Thousands of years without artificial light have wired our brains to associate light with being awake and dark with being asleep (or at least ready for sleep). As a result, exposure to light can drastically impact your sleep-wake cycle (6-9).
Your body doesn’t actually ‘rest.’
Your body is hard at work when you’re sleeping, doing tasks like flushing toxins that accumulated in your brain throughout the day and repairing your muscles and joints (10). When you’re not getting enough good quality sleep, your body, in turn, sends you signals. You might feel lethargic when you wake up (even when you’ve gotten a full night of sleep) or extra tired during the day. Waking up repeatedly during the night is also a sign that your sleep quality is suffering.
How can you start sleeping better?
When you’re evaluating your own sleep, it’s valuable to consider your sleep hygiene, or the habits you have that encourage restful sleep. There are 3 big categories to consider. Paying attention to all 3 pieces of your sleep hygiene and how they impact your sleep can help you rest better at night.
Your sleep environment.
When you’re really tired, you might feel like you can sleep anywhere, but for good quality sleep it helps to sleep in a room that’s dark, a comfortable temperature, and quiet. Noise, feeling too warm or cold, and light all stimulate activity in your brain, disrupting sleep even if you don’t actually wake up as a result. Keeping a positive sleep environment includes removing electronics from your bedroom, or turning them off, while you sleep (the light from screens confuses your brain) and using a white noise machine or earplugs if you live in a noisy area.
Another way to improve your sleep environment is train your brain to use your bed as a cue it’s time to rest. The best way to do this is by only using your bed for sleep (or being intimate). When you spend time doing wakeful activities in bed, like eating, working, or watching stimulating TV shows, your brain begins to associate your bed with those activities, leading to issues falling asleep and staying asleep. Instead, by reserving your bed for rest, your brain associates your bed with sleep and sleep alone (11).
Your sleep routine.
Preparing your body for a restful, calm night of sleep is a powerful tool for improving your sleep quality. Sleep routines vary from person to person, but it’s helpful if it’s done away from bright lights and includes a relaxing activity. Stretching, reading a book, or meditating are all great activities to incorporate into your sleep routine.
It’s also helpful to note what a good sleep routine doesn’t include. Caffeinated drinks, big meals, intense physical activity, and screen time before bed can all hinder sleep. Instead of preparing your body and mind for sleep, they’ll likely keep you awake instead.
Your daytime habits.
Your sleep-wake cycle is influenced by actions you take during the day. You can do things during the day that will help keep your circadian rhythms on track, which will improve your sleep at night. Activities like getting exposure to sunlight during the day, exercising in the morning or early afternoon, and waking up at the same time everyday can be beneficial for sleep.
On the other hand, long naps, waking up late in the day, spending your day in a dark environment, and large quantities of caffeine can impact your sleep later on.
Pieced together, sleep hygiene can help you improve your quality of sleep, improving your mental and physical health.
Sleep Better with TOVI
Once you feel ready, TOVI can help you start improving your sleep hygiene by providing education, including expert-vetted articles, and by helping you set a manageable SMART goal. With TOVI, you can develop new, healthy habits to improve your sleep for the long-term.
- Andersen, C., Platten, C.R. 2011. Sleep deprivation lowers inhibition and enhances impulsivity to negative stimuli. Behavioural Brain Research. 217 (2): 463-466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2010.09.020.
- Tempesta et al. 2010. Lack of sleep affects the evaluation of emotional stimuli. Brain Research Bulletin. 82(1-2): 104-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainresbull.2010.01.014.
- Faith S. Luyster, Patrick J. Strollo, Phyllis C. Zee, James K. Walsh, Sleep: A Health Imperative, Sleep, Volume 35, Issue 6, 1 June 2012, Pages 727–734, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1846
- The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. Sleep and Chronic Disease. Available online: https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/chronic_disease.html
- Perry, G. S., Patil, S. P., & Presley-Cantrell, L. R. (2013). Raising awareness of sleep as a healthy behavior. Preventing chronic disease, 10, E133. doi:10.5888/pcd10.130081
- Fuller, P. M., Gooley, J. J., & Saper, C. B. (2006). Neurobiology of the Sleep-Wake Cycle: Sleep Architecture, Circadian Regulation, and Regulatory Feedback. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 21(6), 482–493. https://doi.org/10.1177/0748730406294627
- Czeisler, C., Allan, J., Strogatz, S., Ronda, J., Sánchez, R., Ríos, C., Kronauer, R. (1986). Bright Light Resets the Human Circadian Pacemaker Independent of the Timing of the Sleep-Wake Cycle. Science, 233(4764), 667-671. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1698019
- Duffy, J F, Kronauer, R E, Czeisler, C A, ( 1996), Phase-shifting human circadian rhythms: influence of sleep timing, social contact and light exposure.. The Journal of Physiology, 495 doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1996.sp021593.
- Saper, C.B., Lu, J., Chou, T.C., Gooley, J. The hypothalamic integrator for circadian rhythms. Trends in Neurosciences, 28(3): 152-157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2004.12.009
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O'Donnell, J., & Christensen, D., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J., Takano, T., Deane, R., Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain. Science, 342: 373-7. Doi: 10.1126/science.1241224.
- Lacks, P., Bertelson, A.D., Sugerman, J., Kunkel, J. (1983) The treatment of sleep-maintenance insomnia with stimulus-control techniques. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 21(3): 291-295. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(83)90211-5.
Written by Ashley Miller-Dykeman, MA
Ashley is a science communicator and writer with a background in biology (BA, Boston University) as well as bioethics and science policy (MA, Duke University). In addition to writing for TOVI, Ashley is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and a loving dog mom.