You know that feeling when you wake up from a really great night’s sleep, when energy is abundant, and you feel balanced, strong and capable? You’re not imagining that feeling. Your body craves sleep, and functions better when it gets the recommended seven to eight hours it needs.
But according to a study from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, about one-third of adults in the U.S. say that they get less than the recommended seven-eight hours of sleep.
While a few bad nights of sleep tied to particularly stressful situations (like the night before a job interview or an early morning flight) likely won’t compromise your health, researchers are learning more about the adverse health effects related to chronic lack of sleep.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has linked the lack of sleep with a variety of health conditions, from diabetes to depression. According to CDC data from 2014, adults who consistently got less than seven hours of sleep per 24-hour period were more likely to report 10 chronic health conditions compared to those who got seven or more hours per 24-hour period.
How sleep affects health
Researchers are investigating the links between not getting enough sleep and chronic conditions. Three chronic illnesses with known correlations to sleep deprivation are:
Diabetes: People who don’t get sufficient sleep may be at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that how long you sleep and the quality of your sleep affects your levels of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c). HbA1c is an important marker of how well someone is managing his or her blood sugar.
Heart disease: One cause of chronic sleep issues is sleep apnea, a condition where you stop breathing for small amounts of time. Sleep apnea is about oxygen flow, and repeatedly cutting off oxygen can increase your risk for heart disease. Being scant on sleep is also linked to having higher blood pressure, a key risk factor for heart attack. Sleep can help regulate stress hormones, which can help lower your blood pressure.
Depression: People who suffer from depression often have trouble sleeping, which can increase their depressive symptoms. Researchers are still learning new things about the connection between sleep and mood, and new studies link lack of sleep with depressive symptoms for both adults and adolescents.
How to improve your sleep
You have to both prioritize sleep, and—if you are struggling with conditions like insomnia—relax about sleep. The more anxious you are about falling asleep, the harder it can become. It’s all about finding the balance. These tips may help:
Exercise during the day. Exercise isn’t just fantastic for your health in general, it can also produce that bone-tired feeling of exhaustion that helps you sleep. Get your exercise in short bursts or in one intense session. If you can exercise outside, that’s even better, since research has shown that exposing yourself to more natural light during the day can help you fall asleep at night.
Establish a routine. Bodies are set up to respond to routines. In fact, the sleep cycle is one giant routine. Do your part by creating your own relaxing sleep routine. Give yourself 30 minutes to wind down before going to bed, and try to go to bed at the same time every night.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Put away the mobile device (will it really help to check your email one more time?), and try to avoid screens as you wind down for the night. Dark, cool, calm, screen-free rooms set you up for a good night’s sleep.
Try deep breathing. Once you fall asleep, you begin to breathe more deeply, through your belly. Simply lying in bed with your eyes closed and practicing deep belly breathing can help get you into a more relaxed state.
When you wake up in the morning refreshed, your body will thank you.