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Why Sleep Is So Important & How to Get It

By Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Getting a good night's sleep is so important for our health -- both physical and mental. We know this, we read about this, we were told as kids to go to sleep on time, and yet many of us don't catch enough zzz's.

Sleep helps our brains -- we actually learn more after a full night of rest. We cope better with more sleep, feel less stressed and have less depression. Physically, research continues to link lack of sleep to increased risk of heart disease, obesity and other diseases. So read on for five burning questions (and answers) about how and why sleep is so important!

Q: How much sleep should I get?

A: The rule of thumb is seven to eight hours. Of course, we all know someone who gets by on a measly four hours and still manages to be productive, but that is not the norm. Remember: Four hours is not the norm. In actuality, the amount of sleep that we need changes over time -- see the list below from the NIH NHLBI (National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).

Unfortunately, you can't make up for lost sleep: Lose an hour of sleep tonight and it's gone. Some people like to sleep in on weekends and/or vacation, but those extra hours don't make up for the lost sleep at another time.

Newborns: 16 to 18 hours a day
Preschoolers: 11 to 12 hours a day
School-age: At least 10 hours a day
Teens: 9 to 10 hours a day
Adults (including the elderly): 7 to 8 hours a day

Bottom Line: Get seven to eight hours of sleep. We don't have sleep banks where we can store up the hours; if you don't get enough sleep, you can't make it up.

Q: How do I make my bed sleep-friendly?

A: Remember what the bed is for: sleeping and intimacy. It’s not for screen time, reading the great American novel or eating bowls of popcorn. In fact, your entire bedroom should be set up to maximize sleeping:

  • Keep it dark. Use curtains and/or shades to keep light out.
    - Keep it cool. Not too hot, not too cold; but do keep it toward cooler temps.
    - Keep it quiet. No loud music in the bedroom. If anything, play soothing music.

Once you've completed your bedtime routine and turned out the lights, give yourself about 20 minutes to fall asleep. If you can't fall asleep during this time and counting sheep holds no allure, then get up. Actually get up out of bed. Don't stay in bed and read; don't stay in bed and turn on the TV or any other screen. Get up and out of bed. When you start feeling sleepy again, then go back to bed and try again.

Bottom Line: Think of your bedroom -- and especially the area near your bed -- as an oasis. Limit the noise, light and devices.

Q: How do my phone and TV affect my sleep?

A: Screens from electronic devices disrupt sleep. Get them out of your bedroom -- now. The light from these screens disrupts the circadian rhythms (our internal clock) and interferes with our bodies' concept of day and night. Smartphones, TVs, iPads, e-readers -- they all interfere with a good night's sleep. When we sleep, we are either in REM sleep or non-REM sleep. Both are important for our health, but can be disrupted by these screens.

Bottom Line: Positively influence your sleep with one easy step: Get the screens out of your bedroom. Consider removing that TV, don't charge devices in the bedroom and put that iPad away.

Q: Does what I wear to bed matter?

A: Practically, it doesn't really matter what you wear to bed. Some of my patients insist on flannel pajamas, some wear cotton clothes and some I know prefer their old college sweatshirts.

What matters is that you're comfortable. After all, you think about what you wear during the day, so think about what puts you in the right mood for going to bed! Personally, I want to feel calm at the end of the day, and throwing on an old piece of clothing that I don't really care about is not going to evoke that emotion.

Bottom Line: It pays to think about what you wear to bed -- if you wear anything to bed. Just like you do in the rest of your life, wear what calms you and makes you feel good to yourself and to a partner.

Q: What foods and beverages can hurt my sleep? Which ones help?

A: Caffeine and alcohol are the two most obvious culprits: Caffeine is a stimulant and shouldn't be consumed close to bedtime. Researchers have studied sleep and alcohol since the 1930s -- a long time just to prove what most of us already know: Alcohol disrupts our sleep. While it may initially help by acting like a sedative, it often results in disrupted sleep and sleepiness the next day.

Not all is lost: Some beverages can actually help. Think tea and warm milk, such as an herbal or decaffeinated tea like chamomile. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is known to cause sleepiness.

Bottom Line: Think before you eat or drink close to bedtime if you have trouble sleeping. Switch to a decaffeinated beverage after lunch, limit your alcohol intake and try herbal tea or a warm glass of milk before bedtime.

Readers -- What is your tried-and-true sleep routine? What do you do when you have trouble sleeping? Do you watch TV or use your smartphone in bed? Can you tell if it has an effect on your sleep? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Beth Ricanati, M.D., built her career bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy moms juggling life and children. Dr. Ricanati worked at Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Women's Health and then at the Women's Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2008, she joined the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute to serve as the founding medical director of Lifestyle180, a groundbreaking lifestyle-modification program to treat chronic diseases with nutrition, exercise and stress management.

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