Why do we sleep? For decades, sleep researchers have been trying to understand why we spend a third of our lives sleeping. What we have found is that slumber not only makes us feel alert and refreshed, but it also fulfills vital physiological functions. Our bodies need sleep to aid our metabolic and immune systems, to create and retain memories, to boost mood, and to fortify judgment. But in today’s fast-paced world, how can you get a good night’s sleep?
Follow a regular sleep-wake pattern.
Help regulate your internal clock by going to sleep and waking at the same time each day. Avoid altering your hours on weekends, as even minor shifts can mimic jet lag.
Adhere to a bedtime routine.
Your body needs signals to prepare to sleep, such as washing your face or brushing your teeth. Try reading a book in muted lighting to help you unwind.
Avoid eating, exercising, discussing work, or watching television right before bedtime.
These activities may act as stimulants.
Maintain a sleep-conducive environment.
Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool at night, and use it for sleep, sex, and soothing prose only; it is not the place to watch horror movies, pay bills, or check emails.
Temper caffeine and alcohol consumption.
Both can disturb sleep. Abstain from caffeine starting at least four hours before bedtime; it can stay in your system for as long as twelve. Do not consume alcohol in the three hours before bedtime. Although alcohol may induce drowsiness initially, it can cause increased wakefulness in the middle of the night once it metabolizes.
Toss the blackout shades.
Circadian rhythms adjust to light changes; use those natural cues to your advantage.
Don’t stint on sleep.
Most adults need eight hours to function optimally. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to decreases in performance, alertness, cognition, and motor skills, while also increasing the risk for such health problems as prediabetic conditions, immune deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, and mood disturbances. Nationally, sleep deprivation accounts for an estimated 100,000 auto accidents and more than 1,500 fatalities each year.
Enlist professional help when all else fails.
If you suspect a sleep disorder or consistently do not feel refreshed after eight hours of sleep, consult a sleep specialist.
Elizabeth Klerman ’86, PhD, is an HMS associate professor of medicine and an associate physician in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.