More than one-third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night, putting them at risk for serious, chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The real victim of a lack of sleep, however, is the brain.
When you are asleep, your brain catches up on tasks it can't do while you are navigating your day, such as cleaning out waste, saving new information, and filing away memories. When you don't get enough sleep, the brain can't complete all of these tasks, and that can lead to memory problems and serious brain disease in the long run."
Randall Wright, M.D., Houston Methodist neurologist
Wright adds that because the brain controls the entire body, the chronic health conditions linked to not getting enough sleep might stem from how the brain is affected by the lack of sleep.
"So many people tell me that they just need that extra hour in the day to do more around the house or catch up on work, but what they don't realize is that they are getting more done today while sacrificing tomorrow's productivity," said Wright, director of the Houston Methodist Brain Wellness Program. "A tired brain causes us to feel sluggish, have poor concentration and fall asleep while driving or at our desk. So in the end, we really aren't getting more done."
Most people do not get enough sleep because they have trouble falling and staying asleep. Wright recommends these three tips for a good night's rest:
- Develop a wind down routine – Your routine should include simple tasks such as brushing your teeth, taking a warm shower, listening to relaxing music and reading a book.
"When you make this routine a habit and combine it with a set bedtime and wake-up time, your brain will begin to recognize this pattern as signals that it is time to relax and will release hormones to help you fall asleep when you get in bed," Wright adds.
- No devices in the bedroom – "This may not be practical for adults, but is a must for kids," Wright said. "If you have to keep your phone on the nightstand, make sure you don't use it after starting your wind down routine because we know the light can affect how the brain prepares to fall asleep. And if you do wake up in the middle of the night, don't pick up the phone or turn on the TV – go in to another room, have a cup of warm, non-caffeinated tea and read for a few minutes."
- Eat and exercise early – Wright advises having your last meal of the day no later than 7 p.m. The brain runs the digestive system, which takes a few hours to process food and settle down for the night. The brain will not be able to settle down and prepare for sleep until the digestive system does as well.
"Studies have shown that people who exercise during the day tend to sleep better," Wright said. "I tell my patients to exercise as early in the day as possible. For many, exercise releases adrenaline and endorphins, and these hormones will keep you awake if you exercise late in the day."
Many people can get enough sleep naturally if they develop good sleep hygiene and stick with it.
"Sleep aids really should be a last resort," Wright said. "While people don't usually become addicted to sleep aids, it is very easy to become dependent on them, which will lead to needing a higher dose every few months. And in the long run, those medications can begin to affect major organs and lead to other health issues."