That's because your body does a lot while you snooze. Throughout the night, your body switches three to five times between REM sleep (when you dream) and deep sleep (the restorative phase, when you don’t). This cycle is controlled by your circadian rhythm, which affects how every cell and organ in your body functions. If you don’t hit enough restorative REM cycles throughout the night, you’ll disrupt your circadian rhythm so that your body isn’t able recharge—and you’ll feel tired and sluggish when you wake up the next day.
“A lot of [people] undervalue the importance of getting enough sleep. But there is so much evidence about importance of sleep to our health, it’s overwhelming,” says Wendy Bennett, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who specializes in obesity and preventative medicine. She notes that a lack of sleep is linked to everything from obesity, depression, and heart disease to an increased risk of getting in a car accident.
However, if you're a new parent, a caretaker, or often work the night shift, getting more sleep simply might not be an option—and hearing people recommend it can be...frustrating at best. (Try arguing with a crying baby that you need a few more hours of shut-eye!) If you’re among the 7 to 19 percent of Americans who chronically don’t clock enough sleep every night for reasons that are out of your control, you’re not doomed to poor health. Here are a few steps you can take to maximize the quality of the shut-eye you can get while supporting your overall health.
1. Avoid using your phone for at least two hours before bed
Yes, you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: The blue light from electronics (including your phone, TV, and computer) really mess with your sleep. The light suppresses the release of melatonin and boosts reaction times and attention, making you stimulated when you should be chilling out and dozing off.
“Avoiding these can make a big difference, because light messes with your circadian rhythm, so your body thinks you should be staying up later than it should,” says Dr. Bennett. Try to avoid bright lights (especially your phone) for two to three hours before hitting the sack, and use dim red lights—the least disruptive color—as night lights.
2. Work a 30-minute walk into your daily routine
It might be the last thing you want to do when you feel like face-planting a pillow, but getting active boosts your health and your energy when you can’t get enough sleep. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise most days of the week is usually enough to feel a bit more awake and benefit your health, says Dr. Bennett.
“Exercise is the thing I talk to patients about most. When you’re fatigued, it’s the best antidote,” says Bennett. Workouts do so much for your body, including improving your mood, reducing your risk of heart disease and some cancers, and managing your blood sugar levels.
Regularly exercising can also help you to snooze better the few hours you can sleep because you’ll feel more tired and ready to conk out, says Dr. Bennett. In fact, one study found that taking a brisk walk or jog for 30 to 40 minutes, four times a week, halved the time it took to fall asleep. While that reduction was just 12 minutes, it adds up over time—especially if you’re already sleep-deprived.
3. Get outside in the a.m.
Sunlight boosts your mood by regulating hormones that control your circadian rhythm, which can help on days when you’ve stayed up far past your bedtime (or woken up several times to care for a baby).
“A sunny day makes everyone happy, but it’s more about light and dark,” says Dr. Bennett. “Every cell in your body responds to the day-night cycle, so waking up and exposing your eyes and body to light is good way to start your day.”
4. Take power naps...
Some research has found napping for 30 minutes or less can enhance daytime brain function, although the findings aren’t conclusive, Dr. Bennett says. “For people who are having very fragmented or inadequate amounts of sleep, getting a nap here or there is beneficial,” she says. It’s fine to catch up when you can if it makes you feel better. But if you find that napping makes you feel groggy and unable to sleep that night, don’t bother!
5. ...or sleep extra on weekends
If napping during the week isn’t an option, you can also try to get more on the weekend. While research is mixed on that front (some studies say it's possible to catch up on sleep, others say it's not), says Dr. Bennett, it can't hurt to try and see if that helps you. New parents, for example, can take shifts, where one person catches up Saturday and the other on Sunday.
“I tend to tell people it’s good to try and catch up on sleep when you can. Catching up before the work week is better than never catching up at all,” says Dr. Bennett.
6. Meditate for five minutes before bed
Loads of research shows that mindfulness meditation throughout your day can help you sleep better and manage stress. The latter is important, since lack of sleep has been shown to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic stress, in turn, can suppress the functions of your immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems while increasing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.
“One of biggest causes of people not sleeping well at night is a racing mind and anxiety, and meditation can be very helpful,” Dr. Bennett says. Even just five minutes of deep breathing can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, she adds.
7. Skip happy hour
Sorry to be a buzzkill…but while it might seem like a nightcap is the ideal way to nod off, alcohol can harm your health in more ways than one. Recent research suggests that no amount of alcohol improves health, while drinking too much increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart and liver damage, and several types of cancer. Even a bit of alcohol also impacts the quality of the sleep you do get. “People think alcohol makes you sleep better, but it can actually lead to fragmented or poor sleep,” says Dr. Bennett. It's generally best not to drink within three hours of your bedtime.
8. Eat more fruits and veggies
Research shows that poor sleep is linked to obesity (along with other adverse outcomes). That’s possibly because people are awake more hours of the day and therefore eating more calories, or possibly because a disruption in their circadian rhythm has thrown off their system. Either way, “people have a harder time regulating their willpower when they’re really tired. Eating a generally healthy diet can help people feel better and potentially less tired,” says Dr. Bennett. (And it's one of the easiest ways to stay healthy, regardless.) Pounding your peas and carrots may be the best place to start, since fruits and veggies contain fiber to keep you feeling fuller for longer along with disease-fighting phytonutrients (i.e. antioxidants only found in plants).
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