When setting new year’s resolutions, we often focus on actions we can take to improve our health or shed excess fat, but in doing so, neglect an essential, passive strategy for meeting those goals and feel our best doing so. For those looking to get fit, choosing between more time at the gym and more time between the sheets might seem like a no-brainer, but sleep plays a surprisingly dominant role in both exercise recovery and performance, and weight loss more broadly.
How Lack of Sleep Impacts Your Health
Lack of sleep impacts a myriad of bodily processes. Firstly, it makes levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, which, when chronically high, causes our bodies to store more fat, especially in the stomach. It also increases our risk for developing obesity and diabetes dramatically. In fact, one study found that, for every extra hour of sleep we gain, we reduce our risk of obesity by 50%. Conversely, sleeping fewer than five hours per night was associated with a 91% increased risk.
What’s more, sleep deprivation simultaneously lowers leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, and raises ghrelin, the hormone that makes us feel hungry. Add impaired glucose tolerance to the mix, and the result is not only overeating, but also heightened cravings for carbohydrate-dense foods.
We also burn a surprising number of calories when we sleep, so missing out on a few hours each night really adds up over time.
And, unsurprisingly, lack of sleep impacts all aspects of mental performance, from productivity and mood to judgment and reaction time. It’s the reason the Federal Aviation Administration set rules for the amount of rest pilots must get, and why driving when you’re tired is so dangerous. Doctors, too, are more prone to making potentially grave medical errors when they’ve under-slept, and countless studies have shown students perform better on exams when they’re properly rested, since inadequate sleep impairs the brain’s ability to consolidate both factual and procedural information.
Why You Should Establish Good Sleep Habits Now
Many aspects of our daily lives inhibit our ability to fall asleep easily and stay asleep once we’ve done so. Between our dependence on technology and artificial lighting and our unpredictable schedules, our bodies can no longer rely on the sun for guidance as they once did.
The following tips, based on the principles of proper sleep hygiene, will help you tune in to your body’s natural sleep rhythms once more.
1. Limit Screen Time Before Bed
Technology hinders sleep in two ways. Firstly, it’s highly stimulating. Whether it’s the excitement of scrolling through your news feed or the stress of opening a work email, technology tricks your brain into thinking you need to be awake, keeping it active rather than allowing it to wind down, as brain scans have shown. What’s worse, the blue light emitted from electronic devices halts the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep (blue light filters can help with this, however)
2. Control Your Environment
Ideally, your bedroom should be quiet, dark, and cold. Even the smallest flashing light from your phone can disrupt your sleep. Alarm clocks, too, should be covered, not only to block their light, but also to prevent the anxiety that often comes with counting down how many hours you have left to sleep.
3. Schedule Worry Time
For many people, the moment their head hits the pillow is the moment their brain chooses to start processing the events of the day and planning those of tomorrow. Rather than lying awake in bed fighting this natural urge and agonizing over the fact of being awake, an effective strategy is to actively schedule time for your brain to run through these thoughts before bed. Whether it’s an upcoming presentation you’re worried about, an awkward social interaction you had earlier in the day, or an eagerly anticipated event that’s keeping you up, getting this rumination out of the way before your head hits the pillow makes a big difference.
What does this look like?
Try finding somewhere dim and cozy to curl up with a blanket and some herbal tea and then let your thoughts run their course. Better yet, write down some of these worries — and action steps you can take to alleviate them the next day, even if it’s as simple as “I will tackle this tomorrow, since there’s nothing I can do about it now” — in a “worry journal” that you keep outside your bedroom. The physical act of putting thoughts to paper and then deliberately placing that paper outside of your sleeping space is a powerful cognitive tool that tells your brain it’s safe to rest.
Other goals you can set for improving your sleep include setting a sleep schedule, where you go to bed and rise at the same times each day, avoiding caffeine in the eight hours before you go to sleep, and getting out of bed and reading if you can’t fall asleep.
With so much to gain and so little to lose, there’s no reason not to start improving your sleep — today.