Sleep your way to better health

Do you consider yourself a healthy person? If you eat right and exercise, you are well on your way towards leading a healthful life, but there my be one factor that you’re leaving out of the equation: How many hours of shut-eye do you get each night?

Sleep is perhaps one of the most underrated — yet powerful — components of our health regimen. Many of us intentionally try to eat healthfully, get in that workout, and take our vitamins, but how many of us reach our sleep goals, or even have sleep goals?

“I find myself awake at 3 am more often than not,” says Rose Aberdeen of the Lower East Side. “And then I cannot get back to sleep. The pillow is too thin or not plump enough. I turn to my left, then my right, settle on my back, and still have the next day’s itinerary running through my mind. On my worst night, I pick up my phone on the nightstand and start answering e-mails.”

Lack of sleep

Most people know that sleep is vital for good health, but insufficient sleep is a contributor in a long list of diseases, and even early death. Lack of sleep has been linked with a rise in the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

In a fascinating study out of the University of Chicago, researchers studied a group of student volunteers that slept only four hours each night for six consecutive days. The young volunteers quickly acquired higher levels of blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone). They produced half of the number of antibodies normally made to a flu vaccine.

In addition, in that short span of time of just six days, the students showed signs of insulin resistance, which is a precursor to developing type 2 diabetes. Still, most surprisingly of all, the changes in each student were completely reversed when they made up the hours of sleep that had been lost.

Tips to get those important ZZZs

An average adult needs at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night. So what do you do if you find yourself not sleeping enough? The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:

Stay away from screens. Television, phone, tablets, all of them. Bright lights disturb normal circadian rhythm. Don’t even leave phones close to you, because the urge to check them can be strong, and it’s just too easy to pick them up.

Don’t eat too much late in the evening. Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.

Stick to a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time everyday — including weekends.

Create a sleeping ritual. Maybe it’s a hot bath, a cup of herbal tea, or lighting a scented candle.

Avoid naps. Especially those longer than 15 minutes.

Exercise daily. It will help you be tired enough to fall asleep at bedtime.

Engage in calming activity before bed. Nothing that will stimulate you or get you excited. Read a chapter of your favorite book.

Make your bedroom conducive to sleeping. Close out incoming lights, use comfortable pillows, and keep it at a cool temperature.

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Find Sullivan on her blogs, Just Write Mom and Some Puppy To Love.