4 Big Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep
You surely already know sleep is vital. It allows the mind and body to recharge. Sleep actually repairs damage that’s done to your brain while you’re awake and, presumably, thinking. It also gives the brain some quiet time to consolidate thoughts and experiences into long-term memories. Yes, a lot goes on while you’re not there. On the flip-side, lack of sleep is really bad for you. Here are four great reasons to sleep long and sound, followed by four science-backed strategies to help make it so.
1. Better mood
People who get a good night’s sleep experience more joy when something good happens the next day, and fewer negative emotions when something bad happens, according to new research in the journal Health Psychology. “When people experience something positive, such as getting a hug or spending time in nature, they typically feel happier that day,” says study leader says Nancy Sin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “But we found that when a person sleeps less than their usual amount, they don’t have as much of a boost in positive emotions from their positive events.” The findings add to a sea of research linking good sleep to lower stress and anxiety and better moods.
2. Sharper wits
Poor sleep affects the brain in every way imaginable. It reduces your ability to pay attention, hampers reasoning and decision-making skills, as well as language ability and learning, and it dulls the memory. Oh, and now scientists say lack of sleep can cause your brain to simply slow down, similar to being drunk. That increases reaction time, which could be dangerous when, I don’t know, driving?
3. Better physical health
Lack of sleep is really bad for you. It’s linked to increased risk of depression, Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks and many other ills. People who sleep less than six hours a night have, on average, a 27% higher risk of developing clogged arteries that can choke blood flow to the heart or brain. Poor sleep even makes pain worse. Volunteers in a study were deprived of sleep, then scientists applied “uncomfortable heat” to their legs (the only thing I love more than science are these volunteers). The sleep-deprived brains actually amplified the sensation of pain and also cut back on the production of pain-reducing dopamine, compared to the brains of people who’d slept normally.
4. Cleaner brain
Among sleep’s most important functions is to clear your head, quite literally. When you’re awake and thinking and doing, the brain’s activity creates byproducts, bits of “garbage” like cast-off proteins and damaged genes. A bunch of channels or tunnels called the glymphatic system, whatever that is, surround the brain and act like a trash collection system, clearing the detritus out. The system — only recognized fairly recently by scientists and not fully understood— works best when you sleep, it seems, and if all goes well, it helps prevent mental decline later in life.
HOW TO GET SOME
You might need more or less sleep than other people, due to inherent biological differences, experts say. So there are no perfect, firm guidelines. Yet there’s a ton of misinformation out there on sleep, some of it funded by the pharmaceutical industry, which would like us to think we’re perpetually sleep-deprived. Nonetheless, most experts advise at least seven hours nightly for adults, and I’ve found no evidence to suggest that’s bad advice, at least in for the average person (again, whatever that is).
If you find sleep hard to come by, there are several possible remedies. The answer is not sleeping pills, btw: Studies find they increase your risk of premature death, whether you take them regularly or occasionally. You’ve probably heard the common tips: exercise, eat well, avoid caffeine at night and don’t drink too much alcohol. All scientifically sound. Here four other sleep strategies you may be less aware of:
1. Get outside more
This is not a sermon about exercise. You simply need more daylight. Bright, natural daylight helps set the human biological clock and suppress production of melatonin, which is then released at night to help you sleep. The modern world has driven us all inside more, and typical office or home lighting is not sufficient to fully cue our internal clock that it’s daytime. Get outside at least two hours a day, the experts say, and your body will do a better job making melatonin at night. (And while you’re out there, don’t be afraid to go for a walk, which will also help you sleep better.)
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2. Darken the room
Night isn’t what it used to be, with all the light pollution out there. Just like lack of daylight messes with our biological clock, so does too much light at night. People who live in more illuminated parts of the country — cities and bright suburbs — get less sleep, research finds. Turn off the porch light and draw those shades, or nail a blanket over the window.
3. Take a hot bath
Your body temperature fluctuates up to 3 degrees between sleepy time and wide-awake hours. If your biological clock is working properly, you’ll start to cool down about an hour before your usual bedtime (oh, and yes, going to bed at the same time every night is a helpful sleep strategy). But you can trick the body by taking a hot bath or shower one or two hours before bedtime, a study last year found. Blood will rush to your extremities, attempting to cool your body — jumpstarting what your biological clock should normally do.
4. Get in the right position
Everyone has their own preferred sleeping position, according to the scientists who run sleep clinics. But did you know that you wake up several times and change positions every night? Almost everyone does. We just don’t usually realize it, because we’re only kinda awake and we go right back to sleep. Well, that’s the hope, anyway. But it’s also common to wake up, maybe pee, and then take a half-hour to fall back asleep. So don’t stress about that, as long as you’re getting the total hours your body needs. Grab a book, hopefully with a relaxing them, and lull yourself. Meantime, if you have a positional preference for how to start the night, go with it, the experts say — there’s no right or wrong. Unless you snore too much or have sleep apnea (a clue that you do: someone keeps throwing pillows at you for no reason in the middle of the night). In that case, you’ll be better off on your side.