MD Insights: Dr. Yost on Sleep
How important is sleep really? Are there long-term consequences for missing a couple hours now and then? Here’s and MD’s perspective on sleep and it’s role in our long-term health:
When you think of sleep, what comes to mind? Is it an annoying necessity that keeps you from more important responsibilities? It is something you look forward to but seem to never get enough of?
If you were to prioritize work, play and sleep– which comes first? Which comes last?
What if I told you sleep should be your Number 1 priority? If that seems like a doctor’s naïve fantasy, I invite you to keep reading. As more and more research has been done on sleep and its role in our lives, the evidence paints a clear and striking conclusion: your quality of sleep determines your quality of life.
Here is an incomplete list of things your sleep directly impacts:
1. Your brain: Sleep will enhance or impair your cognitive functioning. The consolidation and storage of memories, the processing and retention of information, and other key abilities like problem-solving, concentration and decision making are all directly affected by quality and duration of sleep.
2. Your body: Poor sleep increases the risk of hypertension, heart disease, obesity, type-2 diabetes, increased effects of aging and more. To provide one example of many: one sleep analysis study found that individuals consistently sleeping less than 6 hours a night more than doubled their risk of contracting cancer alone! Strong, consistent sleep, on the other hand, improves your body’s ability to fight off illness, heal after injuries, and develop a strong, adaptive immune system.
3. Your mental health: Your quality and duration of sleep has a direct impact on the potential onset, and the subsequent intensity, of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, Bipolar disorder, and even the experience of loneliness.
4. Your relationships: Strong sleep enhances your psychological resilience, enabling you to more effectively regulate strong emotion, decrease your propensity to irritability, and increase your ability to bounce back from adversity. Poor sleep will have the opposite effect, as well as being linked to decreased libido, reproductive difficulties in both sexes, and higher stress levels.
Pretty crazy, right? If you’re like me, reading all of that is both fascinating and overwhelming. I think that’s because oftentimes when it comes to our health, we get trapped in the “shoulds” of life.
“I know I should get more sleep/ should pass on another episode/ should enforce my work boundaries… etc, etc”
Sound familiar? It’s a trap we all fall into from time to time. I encourage you all, however, as a doctor and simply as another person who struggles with the same things, to change those “shoulds” to “I wills”. It’s a powerful little shift.
“I will get more sleep!”
Affirming yourself and your desire to pursue a change is the first step. And what follows? Start small! Significant behavior changes in our daily routines come from consistent, small steps in the right direction. Now for some tips on how to start improving and prioritizing your sleep. They include how you can teach your mind and body to recognize when it’s time to sleep, as well as what you can do during the day to help you sleep better at night.
I will be outlining several ways we can start to improve and prioritize our sleep. Significant behavior changes in our daily lives are accomplished through consistent, small steps in the right direction. So my encouragement to you is this: read through the options and pick one. Here are 3 potential ways to improve your sleep, each with a way to go deeper once you’re ready to add something more:
Option 1: No blue light in bed. This has two very important dual functions. First, the blue light of our phones and devices not only keeps us from sleep, but also reduces the quality of our sleep.
Second, this teaches your body and mind that the bed is for sleeping, and nothing else.
If you need to, charge your devices outside your room and buy a regular alarm clock. If you like to watch Netflix or scroll through social media before bed, do it in your living room, your bedroom chair, or even at the kitchen table, but as much as you can, avoid using your devices after you get into bed.
Create your own bedtime routine (that doesn’t include screen time). Implementing a consistent set of actions right before bed will train your mind and body to recognize when it’s time to sleep each night. This can be an incredibly rewarding practice, and the best part is, it’s completely personalized to you! The key is consistency and personalization. Think about what you find relaxing and enjoyable— it could be reading a book, drinking a hot cup of tea, meditating, gratitude journaling, doing 5 to 10 minutes of gentle stretching— and start doing it each night right before sleep. Whether it’s an hour routine or a 5 minute routine, this simple tool can do wonders for the quality of your sleep.
Option 2: Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, without fail. Make it your priority when planning your days and activities! Whatever time you have to wake up each day— whether it’s an 8am workday or a weekend 10am brunch— subtract your 7-8 hours, and plan into your schedule when you’ll be going to sleep accordingly.
Once you’ve begun your practice of prioritizing sleep, try to establish a consistent schedule. Your body has a natural circadian rhythm that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. It is primarily affected by timing (hence, circadian rhythm) and light sources (see Option 1). Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day helps your body establish a strong, consistent circadian rhythm, which is your body’s main tool for promoting and maintaining healthy sleep.
Option 3: Instead of asking, “What are you doing right before bed?” this tip asks, “What are you doing during the day?” Many of the actions we take during the day can positively or negatively impact our quality of sleep at night. Some behaviors that have the biggest impact are:
–Our intake of caffeine and alcohol: To optimize your sleep, it’s best to avoid drinking caffeine within 6 hours of when you’ll sleep. For alcohol, although it oftentimes induces drowsiness, it actually greatly decreases the quality of sleep. So as much as possible, drink in moderation.
–Our activity levels throughout the day: Regular physical activity encourages our bodies to want sleep by the end of the day. As much as possible, try to incorporate movement into your day to day.
–Our ability to manage stress: Stress management is key to healthy sleep. I believe it’s also one of the most valuable practices we can develop for ourselves. If you’d like to learn more about how to manage stress, I wrote another article just on this topic that you can find here!
Choose one of the above and start working on it! When you feel ready to incorporate another practice, choose a second or try one of the other practices mentioned.
I wish you luck on your journey toward healthier sleep and consequently, a healthier life! As always, I would love to answer your questions on this topic or others. You can Ask Dr. Yost below!
Dr. James Yost, Chief Medical Officer at CRH Healthcare
An Emory alum with 30 years of healthcare experience and 17 years as a practicing physician, Dr. Yost cares deeply about the patient experience, inside and outside our centers. Starting this year, Dr. Yost will be answering our patients’ most common questions through MD Insights, with practical and trustworthy advice.
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