What Do Experts Recommend for Healthy Sleep?
Sleep patterns change throughout life, with babies, children, and adolescents needing more sleep than adults. The CDC has a handy chart that outlines how much sleep we need during the different phases of life. Experts generally agree that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night (although some recommend 7-8); too much or too little can have negative health consequences.
As you begin to pay more attention to your own sleep patterns, you will see how different aspects of your life affect and are affected by sleep. To get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night, experts recommend that you:
- Honor your body’s need for sleep. Don’t trade a few hours of productivity/wakefulness for sleep. If you feel as though you don’t have enough time to accomplish everything, see where else you can cut out—watching television in the evening, for example—and make sleep a nonnegotiable priority.
- Stay active during the day. Regular exercise improves sleep and can help with sleep disorders such as insomnia and restless legs syndrome (RLS). Tai chi and yoga may have particularly powerful benefits if you are having trouble sleeping—they offer physical exercise and create a sense of relaxation that facilitates sleep.
- Nurture relationships with loved ones. Research shows that troubled family relationships can disrupt sleep. Make cultivating healthy connections with your family and loved ones a priority, practicing deep listening, gratitude, and good communication skills.
- Create a sleep routine. Having a ritual every night before bed can help to remind the body that it’s time to sleep and lull the mind into a restful state. Harvard’s Healthy Sleep program recommends making your nighttime routine as stress-free as possible—take a hot bath, meditate, or read a good book before turning out the lights. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Avoid stimulants late in the day. Resist that cup of coffee at 3:00 in the afternoon, no matter how tempting it may be. Caffeine affects everyone in differently, but you can generally expect its effects to last 6-8 hours after consumption. Even if you fall asleep easily at night, the leftover effects can disrupt your sleep cycle, making you even sleepier the next day (which may cause you to consume more caffeine!).
Special considerations for people with unusual schedules
Of course, not everyone is able to adhere perfectly to the suggestions outlined above—shift workers, for example, often deal with changing schedules and work through the night, regular travelers experience jet lag, and new parents may have to wake up many times during the night to feed a newborn. While healthy sleep should be a priority when it can be, certain circumstances may make it more difficult.
Although it is not as effective as getting a full night’s sleep, you can:
- Take naps when you can. Brief naps during the day can help increase alertness and minimize sleepiness and sleepiness-related errors. Longer naps can cause grogginess and disorientation after waking, so it’s best to limit your dozing to 20-30 minutes. Try not to nap too close to bedtime, as it can disrupt your regular sleeping pattern.
- Create an ideal sleep environment. Shut out the lights (draw heavy curtains if it’s during the day to block out the sun, which will signal to your body that it’s time to be awake), minimize noise or wear earplugs if necessary, and make sure your sleeping environment is cool enough to be under a blanket comfortably. The National Sleep Foundation says that anything above 75 or below 54 degrees Fahrenheit will wake you up. Creating these conditions will help you use your sleep time more efficiently.
- Take charge of other areas of your health and wellbeing. Even if you are unable to get the amount of sleep you need, you can still move toward personal balance by making sure you eat a healthy, vegetable-rich diet; get exercise each day; cultivate positivity; spend time with friends; and strive to give attention to your purpose and spiritual needs.