Americans spend billions of dollars a year on sleep aids. In fact, according to an article in Consumer Reports, Americans spent $41 billion dollars in 2015 on sleep aids and remedies and by 2020 that amount is expected to increase to $52 billion. The sad reality is that many of these aids and remedies don't work as the ads might suggest.
Americans take a variety of pills with the hopes of getting a good night of sleep. They are taking everything from melatonin, an over the counter sleep aid described as a dietary supplement, to prescription medications like Ambien. Many Americans report taking these medications for up to a year or more. We do all of this with the hopes that we can get that elusive full night of rest.
So what are the health benefits of a good night’s sleep? What happens to our brains and our bodies when we don't get enough sleep and how can we change our habits to ensure that we can rest peacefully?
What Happens to Our Brains When We Sleep?
People often think that when we go to sleep, our brain falls asleep too. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
As your body cycles through five stages of sleep, including wakefulness as one of them, your brain is learning and committing things to memory. It is working to create new pathways as a way for you to process all the information you have gained during the day. This is an essential time for your brain to synthesize all that hard work you have been doing in your wakeful hours and skimping on sleep means not allowing your mind the proper time to absorb all of it.
An NBCNews article published last year describes what happens to your brain and body while you sleep. It describes how your mood, ability to focus and memory are all compromised when you are performing on less than optimal amounts of sleep.
A chronic lack of sleep may put you at risk for some illnesses not previously associated with a lack of sleep. Studies performed on mice indicate that a consistent lack of sleep may be associated with dementia or in a worst-case scenario, Alzheimer's disease. Researchers warn that these studies, while still in their initial stages and only performed on mice, indicate that the same types of cells active in Alzheimer patients were also observed to be more active after sleep deprivation in the mice. Since these studies were only done short term, longer more in-depth observation is needed to determine if this a sustained activity or one that diminishes over time.
What Happens to Our Bodies When We Sleep?
Our bodies need the physical rest of sleep. The recommendation is that adults ages 18-64 sleep anywhere from seven to nine hours per night. The recommendation changes slightly for older adults 64+ to seven to eight hours of sleep and slightly higher for teens at eight to ten hours of sleep.
When we sleep, what happens to our bodies is slightly different for each of these age groups but there are few things in common. With the increased blood supply to muscles, it allows muscle and tissue repair to occur for all age groups. This is especially important as it relates to exercise and other bone or muscle injuries we might incur.
For the teenage group, growth hormones are released providing proper muscle growth and development. As you drift into the deeper stages of sleep, your muscles are in such a relaxed state that they become immobile. This really lets your muscles rest.
Another health benefit of a good night’s sleep is a healthy immune system and the Mayo Clinic agrees. Research has shown that people who have not gotten good quality sleep or enough sleep are more susceptible to contagious illness. Your bodies uses the time asleep to produce proteins and antibodies that are important to fight off viruses.
Sleep deprivation has also leads to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and premature death. Studies have shown that lack of sleep also throws off our body's ability to self-regulate functions like eating, thereby contributing to weight gain and bringing on these chronic illnesses.
What are the Habits of Successful Sleepers?
As we all aim to get that elusive good night of sleep, keep in mind that there are some habits that you can employ to fall asleep and stay asleep. Start by adding one or two to your routine to see which ones are the most beneficial for you. For a complete list of healthy sleep habits, check out the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for more information.
- Regulate your bedtime routine. This means you should aim to fall asleep and wake up at a consistent time each day regardless of whether it is a weekend or a weekday. This helps your body fall asleep faster and recognize natural bedtime cues.
- Exercise. Studies show that exercise helps individuals fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and have a restful night of sleep.
- Stay away from caffeine, alcohol and heavy foods before bedtime. Think about how you feel after you have consumed any of these items during the day. Now think about how you feel after you lie down. Your body is working overtime to process the sugars and fats as well as overcome the stimulus that caffeine provides.
- Keep the lights to a minimum. Our bodies were meant to rise with the sun and sleep during the dark. The interference of lights from handheld devices and TVs has disrupted our internal body rhythms. The next time you think about reaching for the remote, try a book instead.
- Make your bedroom comfortable. This tip refers to everything from the temperature of the room to the sheets on your bed. Choose lighter fabrics that keep your bed cool during the evening to encourage a restful night.