When 1 in 3 Americans aren’t getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis, the obvious question is: Why aren’t we sleeping better? Healthy sleep habits are critical for our mental and physical health, but many of our daily routines don’t support them. With an endless array of responsibilities, distractions, and to-do lists, our waking hours are often spent feeling burned out rather than replenished and ready to rest. If you struggle with catching Zs, we’ve taken a deep dive into the world of healthy sleep and rounded up some of the best advice to get your sleep hygiene back on track. Happy snoozing!

 

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What Is Healthy Sleep?

Forming healthy sleep habits is much more involved than simply closing your eyes for eight hours every night. The quality of your sleep, the physical space of your bedroom, your routines during the day, and underlying health issues all impact your ability to drift into that sweet restorative state. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, our bodies cycle several times through four distinct sleep stages every night: light sleep (NREM 1 and 2), deep sleep (NREM 3), and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In order to reap the benefits of good sleep—such as increased energy, better mental health, improved cognitive functioning, balanced hormones, and muscle tissue restoration—it’s critical to create sleep habits that promote the natural progression of this four-part cycle. 

People who frequently wake up during the night (such as new parents or those with sleep apnea) are at a greater risk for experiencing sleep deprivation and the associated negative side effects. In order to be your happiest and healthiest, there are several key changes you can make to form better sleep habits. But before you dive into restructuring your bedtime routine, take a closer look at how much sleep you need, what physical positions are most conducive to deep sleep, and how the food you eat can impact the quality of your unconscious hours. 

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

The amount of sleep you need changes over time based on your age, hormones, health, and lifestyle. To receive the maximum restorative benefits of sleep, experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend:

  • Infants: 12–16 hours a day
  • Toddlers and preschool-aged children: 11–13 hours a day
  • Kids ages 6 to 12: Around 10 hours a day (potentially more, depending on their developmental needs)
  • Teenagers: 8–10 hours a day
  • Adults (including older adults): 7–9 hours a day

Because newborns are growing at a rapid pace, they require a lot more sleep than their parents to support the healthy development of their hormones, muscles, and cognitive abilities. The amount of sleep that children need per night generally decreases with age, although it can plateau or even peak again during the teenage years due to the intense impact of puberty on the body. 

What Does Sleep Deprivation Do to Your Health?

Not getting enough sleep can have severe side effects that impact your physical, mental, and emotional health. Sleep deprivation—the state of not getting enough quality sleep on a consistent basis—is linked to early death and can turn into chronic insomnia if left untreated. There are three main types of sleep deprivation:

  • Acute deprivation: This means a person only experiences drastically reduced sleep for a short period of time, such as a few days.
  • Chronic deprivation: This refers to sleep deprivation that occurs for three months or longer and is categorized as a sleep disorder. 
  • Sleep deficiency/insufficient sleep: This categorization is more about the quality of sleep being frequently interrupted throughout the night, even if the person is technically asleep for the recommended hours per night. 

Sleep Deprivation Symptoms

  • Cognitive issues: While you sleep, your brain deepens the neural pathways that help you learn, process new information, and retain memories. A 2018 study published in the journal Neuron found that important neural connections are strengthened during sleep while unimportant neural connections are weakened over time, which allows your brain to discard irrelevant information. Without enough rest, the important neural pathways aren’t formed and you can experience memory loss, have trouble concentrating during the day, or make poor decisions that could otherwise be avoided with a well-rested brain.
  • Mental health disorders: Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and general irritability are just a few of the mental health challenges that can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation. In a 2021 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease, researchers found that people who average six or fewer hours of sleep a night are 2.5 times more likely to experience frequent mental distress. If you are in a crisis, help is available by calling the 24/7 National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255.
  • Risk of heart disease: Numerous studies have shown links between sleep deprivation and cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke, coronary artery disease, and heart attack. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that “ frequently neglected sleep disturbances such as poor sleep quality and insomnia are associated with increased blood pressure and vascular inflammation.” Hypertension and inflammation in the cardiovascular system can strain the arteries and reduce the body’s ability to clear plaque, which can ultimately lead to coronary artery disease or heart failure.
  • Weakened immunity: Because the body uses the time it’s asleep to repair itself, regulate hormones, and fight infections, a sleep-deprived person is at a much higher risk for catching a cold or infection. The immune system is weakened when it doesn’t have time to go into autopilot at night. 

In their book Body on Fire, Monica Aggarwal, MD, FACC, director of Integrative Cardiology and Prevention at the University of Florida, and Jyothi Rao, MD, explain how sleep supports our immune system: “In order for the body to work, it needs oxygen. However, the use of oxygen in cellular reactions can generate free radicals, which make our cells unstable and cause damage to our DNA. Consequently, this can lead to chronic illness. … Antioxidants are needed to protect our cells against damage from this oxidative stress. Sleep deprivation adversely affects the immune system, creates even higher oxidative stress, and in turn contributes to even more metabolic imbalances. In contrast, sleep is restorative and serves as an antioxidant.”

  • Weight gain: When you’re sleep-deprived, the chemicals in your brain that signal to your stomach that it’s full are out of balance. This means you’re much more likely to overeat or use food as a coping mechanism to deal with the other mental and emotional impacts of not getting enough sleep. Plus, when your normal digestive processes are out of whack, you’re more likely to have higher blood sugar levels and be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Aggarwal and Rao note that sleep deprivation can make us crave higher-calorie foods: “That trend is partly due to your body’s extra demands for calories and energy, simply because you are awake longer. Several hormones associated with weight management also are affected. Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach that stimulates appetite and has been shown to increase with sleep loss. Therefore, you are hungrier when you sleep less. Leptin is the hormone that tells your body that it is full and your appetite decreases. After only two nights of sleep deprivation (only four hours), ghrelin production increased by 28 percent and leptin production decreased by 18 percent. In other words, two days of sleeping four hours makes you hungrier and reduces your body’s ability to know you are full. Sleep loss also changes how we utilize energy. One study showed that sleep deprivation slowed down fat loss by 55 percent compared to a control group with similar caloric intake but no sleep deprivation.”

  • Low sex drive: It’s very common for a person’s libido to decrease when they aren’t getting adequate sleep. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women had greater sexual desire and gential arousal when they got the recommended hours of sleep. Another study from 2020, published in Translational Andrology and Urology, found that disrupted sleep leads to much higher rates of moderate to complete erectile dysfunction in men.  

Insomnia

Insomnia is a severe form of sleep deprivation that is defined by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s ICSD-3 manual as “persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation, or quality.” It can be acute or chronic, but the duration isn’t as important as the main characteristics that distinguish it from standard sleep deprivation. A 2007 article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine states that insomnia involves “(1) difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or nonrestorative sleep; (2) this difficulty is present despite adequate opportunity and circumstance to sleep; (3) this impairment in sleep is associated with daytime impairment or distress; and (4) this sleep difficulty occurs at least 3 times per week and has been a problem for at least 1 month.” 

There are many possible causes of insomnia, including but not limited to:

  • Stress and mental health disorders that agitate the mind and make it difficult to fall asleep
  • Eating too much before bed or ingesting substances that make it hard to sleep such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol
  • Poor sleep hygiene—behaviors and external conditions that compromise sleep—such as an uncomfortable bedroom environment, having too much screen time before bed, or exercising late at night
  • Medications that interfere with sleep, such as certain antidepressants or over-the-counter cold medications that contain stimulants
  • Chronic pain or other medical conditions that make it uncomfortable to lay down for long periods of time
  • An irregular work, school, or travel schedule that throws off the body’s circadian rhythm 

Experts from Winchester Hospital in Massachusetts report that women, people over the age of 60, pregnant people, those struggling with mental health issues, and night-shift workers are the most prone to developing insomnia. Resolving this disruptive sleep disorder—especially chronic cases—can take some time, but building a strong foundation of healthy sleep habits is a crucial first step. If the symptoms persist and continue to interfere with your daily life, then seeking professional help from a physician or sleep specialist is highly recommended. 

The 4 Stages of Sleep

Throughout the night your body naturally moves through the four stages of sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, different physiological reactions occur during each stage that progressively help the brain and body fully relax so you can feel energetic, alert, creative, and healthy the next day. The amount of time spent in each stage differs from person to person and varies from one sleep cycle to the next, but the average length of each stage is as follows.

  • NREM Stage 1: 1-5 minutes
  • NREM Stage 2: 10-60 minutes
  • NREM Stage 3: 20-40 minutes
  • REM: 10-60 minutes

NREM Stage 1: 1–5 minutes

This initial sleep stage is typically characterized as the “dozing off” stage, where you’re just beginning to transition from consciousness to a more relaxed state. It typically lasts a few minutes, and it is easy to be awakened from this stage. The body and brain are just beginning to slow down, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, muscles are relaxing, and brain wave activity begins to gently decrease. Throughout the night, the length of this stage decreases with every completed cycle so you can spend more time in the restorative Stage 3 and REM phases. 

NREM Stage 2: 10–60 minutes

The next stage moves one level deeper in terms of the physiological responses. Your body temperature drops, your heart rate and breathing slow down, eye movement stops, and your brain wave activity becomes much more lethargic except for small bursts of activity that help you resist being awakened by external stimuli. This stage of sleep gets progressively longer with each cycle, and most people spend half of their sleep time in the Stage 2 phase.

NREM Stage 3: 20–40 minutes

The juicy, deep sleep of the third stage is crucial for brain development, hormone regulation, digestion, immune system recuperation, balanced energy levels, and many other important health factors that can impact your waking hours. During this phase of restorative sleep, your body shuts down even further and it’s harder to rouse someone from their slumber. Brain activity moves into delta waves, which are associated with deep relaxation, physical healing, and dreamless sleep. Time spent in this stage decreases over the course of the night, and you experience the longest period of Stage 3 sleep toward the beginning of the night. 

REM: 10–60 minutes

The rapid eye movements that give this stage its name correspond to a sharp increase in brain wave activity. While your eyes and brain are running wild, the rest of your body is frozen in a near paralysis state called atonia. REM sleep is where vivid dreams happen and scientists believe it is crucial for processing memories, integrating new information, regulating emotions, and inspiring creativity. Typically an REM cycle doesn’t occur until you’ve been asleep for at least 90 minutes and they progressively get longer as the night goes on. 

Does Your Sleep Position Matter?

We spend nearly one-third of our life sleeping—shouldn’t we make it as comfortable as possible? The position you sleep in can make or break the quality of your sleep, and each position is associated with different health benefits or negative side effects. Let’s go over the three most common sleep positions:

  • On the back: Sleeping flat on your back comes with the greatest benefits for your body, such as preventing acid reflux, keeping your spine in proper alignment, relieving neck pain, and preventing wrinkles. Gravity exerts equal force across your entire body, which helps reduce strain on your joints and lessens the chance of waking up sore. Placing a pillow underneath the knees can also decrease hip and low back pain and muscle tightness by supporting the natural curve of the spine. However, this sleep position is notorious for increasing the severity of snoring or sleep apnea because it’s easier for the tongue to put pressure on your airway. 
  • On the stomach: Most sleep experts agree this is the worst position to sleep in (although people with sleep apnea are an exception). Sleeping on your stomach can compound neck and back pain because the weight of your body sinks into the mattress and throws your spine out of alignment. Your muscles, joints, and organs are all impacted by the unnatural position, which can cause you to unconsciously shift around a lot during the night and experience a more restless sleep. However, your airways are more open when you sleep face down, which makes this position useful for sufferers of chronic snoring or sleep apnea.
  • On the side: About 41 percent of people worldwide sleep on their side, making it the most common posture for a comfortable slumber. The exact position can vary—some sleep on their sides with their legs long and straight, while others curl up into a fetal position—but the impact of lying on your side stays pretty much the same no matter how you tweak it. This sleep position can help reduce snoring, decrease heartburn, aid with digestion, and keep the spine aligned if you suffer from back pain. Placing a pillow between your knees and/or hugging one between your arms can further keep your body in a proper, healthy alignment. Additionally, sleeping on your left side has been found to be more beneficial in relieving heartburn and is better for pregnant people. The downsides are more cosmetic than health related, which include greater potential for face wrinkles, sagging breasts, and tight jaw muscles.   

How Does Nutrition Impact Sleep?

While diet isn’t the only factor that impacts your ability to catch some Zs, it is possible to eat your way to a better night’s sleep. A 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine revealed that people who consume more fiber and less saturated fat were less prone to sleep disorders. Consuming large amounts of unhealthy foods—such as sugar, red meat, alcohol, and highly processed foods—can interfere with natural hormone production, digestion processes, and nervous system regulation, which then impacts sleep quality. Switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet is a great way to eat more fiber and less fat so you can prioritize the quality of your sleep even during your waking hours. 

Neal Barnard, MD, has a few food-related tips to kickstart healthy sleep habits:

  • Starch helps you sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, a slice of whole-grain bread or some other starchy food will trigger the release of serotonin in the brain, allowing you to fall back to sleep.
  • Alcohol is tricky. It can lull you into sleep, but the alcohol molecules are soon transformed by your liver into aldehydes, which are mild stimulants that can trigger restlessness.
  • Caffeine stays in your system. For some people, traces of the caffeine from a morning cup of coffee are still circulating at bedtime and will make sleep lighter and more easily disturbed. Notice if your ability to get a good night’s rest changes when you cut out caffeine.

7 Sleep Hygiene Tips

The American Sleep Association defines “sleep hygiene” as habitual behaviors that promote good sleep. If it seems daunting to incorporate several new sleep habits at once, remember that it’s OK to gradually introduce new habits one at a time. Try to not get discouraged if your sleep doesn’t improve immediately: Cultivating good sleep hygiene is a long game, and it’s one you definitely want to play in order to live a long and healthy life. 

1. Create a Calm Bedroom Environment

If your bedroom is disorganized, unwelcoming, or uncomfortable, it’s much less likely that you’ll feel fully comfortable drifting off to sleep. Prioritize creating a calm and enjoyable sleeping space so that your mind and body can relax when it’s time to hit the pillows. This includes investing in a quality mattress and bedding, getting rid of harsh lighting, hanging blackout curtains, regulating the room to a comfortable temperature, and adding soothing scents such as lavender or chamomile with an essential oil diffuser. Treat your bedroom like a sanctuary where you can escape to when life gets busy and stressful. The more at ease you feel in your own bed, the more likely you are to get a good night’s sleep.

2. Limit Distractions Before Bed

Smartphones and tablets have certainly connected the world in incredible ways, but the portability of distracting devices undoubtedly impacts our sleep as well. Instead of scrolling through social media as you get under the covers, put your gadgets away for at least half an hour before bedtime. Silence notifications or even put your phone in another room while you sleep to avoid the temptation to check it. Not only does the influx of information you get every time you open your phone stimulate your brain, but the blue light emitted from the screen can throw off your circadian rhythm by fooling your body into thinking it’s still light outside. (TV also emits blue light, so the 30-minute rule also applies to Netflix.) Technology isn’t the only thing that can distract you before bed, though: Listening to lots of energetic music, socializing until the early morning hours, or exercising late at night are all surefire ways to negatively impact your sleep hygiene. 

Apart from limiting distractions, it’s also beneficial to create a bedtime routine that brings you peace, comfort, and relaxation. This could include meditation, reading a good book, some light yoga stretches, taking a bath, or journaling. Figure out what makes you feel calm, and strive to do that every single night before bed. Over time your brain will learn to associate these “winding down” activities with sleep and naturally provide the physiological responses that move your body towards rest. 

3. Set a Consistent Sleep Schedule

A healthy sleep habit is exactly that—a habit. Sticking to a fixed wake-up time and bedtime is important in order for your body to maintain its circadian rhythm, which supports restful sleep. If you currently have an unstructured schedule and want to build better sleep hygiene, start to adjust your sleeping hours in small increments of 30 minutes. Gradually moving your sleep schedule in a healthier direction will give your body time to acclimate to and absorb the new habit. 

4. Exercise Regularly and Eat Well

This might sound like a no-brainer, but a healthy diet and regular physical activity are some of the best cures to sleepless nights. However, many of us have jobs that require sitting at a desk for several hours a day and aren’t conducive to getting regular exercise. This sedentary routine traps energy in our bodies that needs to be expelled, which could lead to restlessness later in the night. Tiring out the body with a long walk or good gym session is a great way to also tire out the mind. Plus, exercising releases feel-good hormones such as serotonin, which can help relieve stress and put you in the right mindset for a better night’s sleep. 

5. Don’t Use Your Bed for Random Activities

Once you’ve created a cozy bedroom atmosphere, it can be tempting to spend time in bed doing activities that aren’t associated with sleep, such as watching TV, folding laundry, or talking on the phone. It’s crucial to train your brain to associate your bed as a place of rest, not a place of activity (apart from sex). Try to get out of bed as soon as you wake up and move all your morning activities out of the bedroom so that your mind gets accustomed to associating that room exclusively with sleep.

6. Be Mindful of Daytime Habits 

All the small things you do throughout the day add up to inform your sleep habits at night. To put yourself in a prime position for a good night’s sleep, pay attention to when you’re consuming caffeine, alcohol, or highly sugary foods, because they could impact your ability to fall and stay asleep. Allow your body to experience its natural circadian rhythm by seeing the sunlight and feeling fresh air on your skin during the day. Avoid smoking or being near secondhand smoke to keep your lungs clear. And be mindful of the kind of content you’re consuming as you move about the world: Is checking the news headlines every half an hour actually making you more informed, or is it just adding to your stress levels? Even the smallest adjustments to our daily routines can make a difference when our heads hit the pillows. 

7. Talk With Your Doctor

If you still feel like you aren’t getting enough sleep after several months of trying to build healthier habits, it’s time to talk to a physician. Sleep tests, prescription medications, hypnotherapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are all more rigorous approaches to getting your body back on track with sleep.

To learn more about the health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet, visit our Plant-Based Primer. For meal-planning support, check out Forks Meal Planner, FOK’s easy weekly meal-planning tool to keep you on a healthy plant-based path.

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