The regular recharging that our bodies and minds get from a good night’s sleep is essential to our health and our ability to function at our best. Yet, the fact is that modern life with its fast-paced nature, sedentary and indoor jobs, and 24-hour news cycle can make it hard to make room for sleep. That’s why it’s so important to fully understand what we risk when we give up hours of restful sleep—and how to get the regular recharging our bodies and minds need to stay healthy and productive.

How much sleep is enough sleep?

According to guidelines from trusted national organizations, adults over age 18 should get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Children and teens need even more sleep to stay healthy and grow.

Getting adequate sleep isn’t just about the total number of hours, however. Restlessness during the night, and poor quality sleep, can cause many of the same problems as not getting enough sleep overall.

Who’s at risk for not getting enough sleep?

According to 2014 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 30% of Vermont adults reported not getting at least 7 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Adults ages 25 to 54 most reported getting insufficient sleep. Vermonters who were obese, didn’t get any physical exercise, or who smoked also reported getting less sleep.

When it comes to insomnia, a condition in which a person has trouble falling and/or staying asleep, certain people tend have a higher risk. Women have been shown to be significantly more likely than men to develop insomnia, and older adults are also more likely to develop this condition. People who describe themselves as “worriers” or “night owls” as well as people with certain schedules such as those who travel to different time zones a lot or who work shift work also carry a greater risk.

What are the risks of not getting enough sleep?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lack of sleep can have both immediate and long-term consequences.

A night of sleeplessness can result in poorer performance the next day, including a decreased ability to think clearly, remember well, and react quickly as well as increased irritability. This can cause issues at work, school, or home. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, studies have shown that workers who are sleep deprived are much more likely to be involved in work-related accidents. Sleep deprivation was shown to be a factor in some of the worst work-related disasters in modern history, including the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plant disasters and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Perhaps the most common danger comes from the potential for car accidents. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can affect a person’s ability to drive just as much as alcohol intoxication—and drowsy driving causes thousands of car accidents every year.

Lack of sleep over time can also lead to serious health problems. It’s been linked to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and respiratory diseases as well as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

How does one know if they’re not getting enough sleep?

A lack of sleep can cause signs such as a feeling of sleepiness or regular yawning during the day, or even slipping into sleep for brief periods. Another sign of sleep deprivation is regularly falling asleep very quickly at night rather than gradually easing into sleep.

In addition, the symptoms discussed above—such feeling irritable, depressed, or anxious, or having trouble remembering, concentrating, or getting motivated—can also be signs of sleep deprivation.

Sometimes, a lack of sleep can be caused by an underlying disorder that has additional symptoms. For example, loud snoring,waking up at night with a feeling of gasping for air, or waking in the morning with a headache or dry mouth can be signs of sleep apnea, a disorder that causes breathing to stop periodically during sleep. A feeling of itching, pins and needles, or that something is crawling on the legs, can be a sign of a nervous system disorder called restless leg syndrome (or RLS). Tired jaw muscles or pain in the jaw, neck, or face, a dull headache, or tooth issues such as increased sensitivity or worn enamel may be signs of teeth grinding (a condition known as bruxism). If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or dentist to get a diagnosis and learn about treatment options and tools to help you sleep.

What small steps can a person take to get back on track with sleep?

There are many small things you can do to start on the path to better sleep. Here are 5 quick tips based on advice from the National Sleep Foundation:

  1. Set your alarm in the morning and at night. You can help train your body to recognize when it’s time to wake and to sleep by sticking to a regular schedule. 
  2. Get some sunlight in the morning. Especially in the winter months, it’s easy to spend most of the day in darkness. Getting a little sun in the morning, however, can help your body’s natural rhythm stay on target. 
  3. Take a walk. Getting any amount of exercise during the day can help make your body ready for rest at night. 
  4. Eat lighter when you eat later. With all the running around of modern life, it’s easy to push dinner back until late—and then eat more because you’re so hungry. But the indigestion that can come from a big meal can make it hard to sleep. If you eat dinner within 2 to 3 hours of bed, try moving your bigger meal to lunchtime and keep it light at night. 
  5. Create a bedtime routine. This could be taking a warm bath, reading a book, or doing a quick, 5-minute meditation. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but finding a regular activity to do before bed can help you unwind and signal to your body that it’s time to rest.

For more small ways to recharge through better sleep, and the support to stick with changes over time, visit the University of Vermont Health Network’s free One Small Thing website. Go to https://justonesmallthing.org/ to get started.

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