Deadlines at work; cramming for a test; unintended Netflix binges; there’s a lot of reasons why we miss out on a good night’s sleep. It’s easy to tell ourselves we’ll make up for it by hitting the snooze button over the weekend, but research suggests things aren’t that simple — we’re likely doing way more damage than we think.
Research shows that short-term sleep loss (staying up for 24-72 hours without sleep) impairs cognitive functioning like memory, concentration, and decision making while long-term sleep loss (an accumulation of lost hours of sleep over several consecutive nights) affects the operation of our immune system and promotes the onset of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. One week of poor sleep was enough to disrupt the genes that keep our body’s metabolism, inflammation, and stress responses in check.
If you’re not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, you’re not alone — an estimated one in three adults are right there with you. Changing your approach to sleep and creating positive bedtime rituals can genuinely change your life. Here are a few strategies backed by shut-eye specialists:
1. Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Maintaining a calm and restful environment is essential for a good night’s sleep. You can achieve this by using dim lighting, abstaining from using phones, tablets, and computers in bed (even if they’re just for reading), and minimizing the time you’re awake in your bed.
2. Associate Your Bed with Sleep
According to Dr. Matthew Walker, Director of Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, as humans, we are extremely associative — meaning that we can (and should) train our brains to associate our beds with sleep and sex. If you’re lying awake in bed and are having a hard time falling asleep, Walker suggests moving to another room with dim lighting and reading a book or meditating until you feel sleepy again.
3. Listen to your Body
This one is pretty easy. If your body tells you it’s tired, don’t ignore it — you feel that way for a reason! If you’re feeling a little sluggish in the afternoon, do yourself a favor and take a small nap! It turns out that short naps (10-30 minutes) promotes relaxation and may actually improve your mood, memory, and alertness.
Getting a little exercise each day can help you get more sleep. One study suggests that implementing both aerobic physical activity and sleep hygiene education into the lives of adults with chronic insomnia improved not only their quality of sleep but also their quality of life.
If you’re having a difficult time getting to sleep, you may want to try meditating. Research from the University of California suggests that practicing meditation can increase the overall quality of sleep. Mindfulness practices have also been shown to promote relaxation via slow and controlled breathing in addition to calming our brains by switching our nervous system from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode.
5. Consistency is Key
This task will probably be the hardest and will take the most work, but if you stick with it, the benefits are overwhelming! A common approach to sleep is to get up early on weekdays and sleep in on the weekends, but research suggests that variability — in your sleep and daily schedule — may have a negative impact on sleep quality. Studies suggest that keeping a sleep diary for 14 consecutive nights may give you a better understanding of your sleep and wakefulness patterns. By maintaining a consistent schedule, you make it easier for your internal clock to do its job.
While it’s questionable as to whether or not we can truly make up a sleep deficit, the health benefits of getting adequate sleep are undeniable. To ensure you’re doing the best thing for your health, you may be better to err on the side of caution and get the seven to nine hours your body so desperately craves!