A good night’s sleep can work wonders for your outlook and energy level. But sleep also has another purpose: While you’re sleeping, your body is performing self-maintenance. Sleep activates your immune system to help your body heal itself and prevent disease. It keeps the brain working properly, allowing you to think clearly and store learned information and memories. And 40 winks help keep your cardiovascular system, metabolism, appetite and emotions in check.
Research links poor sleep to a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and other health woes.
In fact, after studying 185 healthy older people for 20 years, University of Pittsburgh researchers found the risk of dying prematurely—of any cause—was twice as high in those who routinely slept less soundly or took more than 30 minutes to achieve slumber.
Yet federal statistics reveal as many as 70 million Americans—one-quarter of the population—have trouble sleeping, half of them regularly. Although the amount of sleep a body requires varies from person to person, most adults need at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. Routinely sleeping just one hour less than what’s recommended can slow response time and hamper concentration the next day. School-aged kids need about nine hours; preschoolers do best on 10 to 12; and newborns snooze 16 to 18 hours per 24-hour cycle.
Here’s how to be sure you get the ZZZs you need:
- Stick to a regular schedule. Hit the sheets—and wake up—at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Enlighten thyself. Exposure to sunlight for at least 30 minutes during the day can keep your body clock in sync.
- Use common scents. Sprinkle just-washed pillowcases and sheets with lavender water, one of several scents believed to help induce sleep. Other sleep-soothing scents include vanilla and green apple.
- Avoid a nightcap. Alcohol keeps you in “lighter” sleep stages, increasing the likelihood of waking up during the night. Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the late afternoon and evening.
- Prevent snack attacks. Large meals close to bedtime can trigger sleep-stealing indigestion. For nighttime munchies, have walnuts, yogurt or a glass of milk—all contain the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan.