Being healthy is as simple as a good night's rest

Are you getting enough zzz’s? No matter what your excuse is, not putting in enough hours with your bed is denying your body the rest and recovery that it desperately needs. Sleep plays a crucial role in achieving fitness, preventing disease, and preserving mental acuity. To reap these healthful rewards, you need to commit to the healthy habit of getting to bed in time to clock in the recommended hours.

One Piece of the Health Puzzle

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Think of your body’s quest for overall good health as a simple puzzle of three pieces. These pieces are all equally essential, and if one piece of the puzzle is missing, the healthy picture is incomplete. This trinity of puzzle pieces includes

  • Nutrition, which is to feed and fuel your body for all physical, mental and metabolic activity
  • Physical activity, which is to work muscles, preserve mobility, achieve or maintain a healthy weight, and to improve or maintain strength and endurance
  • Sleep, which is for rest and recovery

It takes an effort to ingrain such healthy habits as eating the right foods, avoiding the wrong foods, getting to the gym regularly and kicking the cigarettes to the curb. Sleep, on the other hand, requires no more than the commitment to schedule the time to snooze into your daily 24 hours. For something that requires no physical exertion or conscious thought, the amount of beneficial activity that goes on inside your body while you sleep is astounding.

Sleep Stages and Cycles

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Sleep occurs in stages. In a sleep laboratory, these stages are identified by an electroencephalogram, which assesses brain activity. Eye movements and muscle activity also characterize different stages of sleep. The stages of sleep include:

  • Light sleep
  • Deep sleep
  • REM sleep

Together, these three stages make up a cycle of sleep, and you experience multiple cycles in a full night of sleep. Each cycle of sleep lasts for roughly 90 minutes. The exact pattern of sleep stages can vary, and you will experience some periods of being awake, however brief, over the course of sleep. Each sleep stage sets the stage for its unique restorative tasks.

Light Sleep

Don't take light sleep too lightly. The name does not equate the value of this sleep stage. Light sleep is the gateway stage toward deep sleep and REM sleep. During light sleep, your heart and respiratory rates slow down as you rest and relax, and your body temperature also drops.

This prepares your body to devote more of its energy toward physical and mental repair and restoration. Light sleep and deep sleep are considered non-rapid eye movement stages of sleep.

Deep Sleep

Deep sleep, which occurs more during the first hours of sleep, is when your respiratory rate slows down, your pulse becomes regular, your blood pressure drops, blood supply to your muscles increases and, your muscles relax further than they did during light sleep. During deep sleep, your energy is replenished.

Deep sleep prompts your immune system to go to work toward your body’s healing and recovery. It is during this stage that your day’s workout rewards you with muscle repair and growth. If you’re striving for those bulging biceps, remember that doing curls does not build your muscles. Working out tears up your muscles.

Muscle growth occurs during deep sleep as those tiny tears heal, scar-like tissue builds up and growth hormones are released. When your body spends enough time in deep sleep mode, you will feel revitalized and ready to take on the day’s physical activities.

REM Sleep

REM, which stands for rapid eye movement, usually occurs after you have gone through at least one stage of deep sleep. REM sleep accounts for roughly one-quarter of your total sleep duration. While more time is typically spent on deep sleep during the first hours of sleep, more time is spent in dreamland, or REM sleep, during the second half of your sleep duration.

During this stage, as the acronym suggests, your eyes quickly dart in all directions under their closed lids. Your brain activity and heart rate increase. This is when dreams occur. While a faster heart rate and irregular breathing occur in response to your dreams, most of your body’s muscles are usually inactive.

REM sleep is the stage that processes your day’s activities and things that you have learned, and this stage also promotes the cataloging and retention of memories. REM sleep also promotes a healthy mood. When you spend enough time in REM sleep, you will feel refreshed and ready to sail through the day’s mental tasks.

Consequences of Too Few Zzz’s

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Chronic lack of adequate sleep can put you in a foul mood and reduce your ability to focus, make decisions and carry out mental tasks. This can result in strained relationships, poor performance in school or work and increased risks for potentially life-threatening accidents.

When it comes to physical consequences, not getting enough sleep on a regular basis increases your risks for the following health conditions:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Infertility
  • Decreased libido
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Alzheimer’s disease

In the long run, not getting enough sleep can result in premature death.

Time for Bed

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So how much sleep should you be getting? According to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep out of each 24-hour period. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of America’s adults are getting six hours or less.

It’s time to take control of your health and say no more to burning the candle at both ends. Start by establishing a daily bedtime that will provide an eight-hour block of time to sleep. Stick to that bedtime and avoid napping during the remaining 16 hours. Keep these other tips in mind to ensure a more productive sleep:

  • 60 to 67 degrees is the ideal ambient temperature for sleeping. Choose bedding linens and sleepwear that will enable you to be comfortable in your bedroom’s temperature.
  • Blue light is a type of light that emanates from electronics, and it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and keep you awake. Say goodnight to the blue light by turning your back on mobile devices and television screens an hour before you plan to settle into bed. Keep cell phones and tablets out of the bedroom altogether.
  • Get new pillows for your bed, and if you have been slumbering on the same bed for ten years, consider getting a new one.
  • Block out all light from your bedroom. Blackout curtains or sleep masks are good choices.
  • Drown out noises. If you would prefer not to wear earplugs, consider a fan or a white noise machine.
  • Devote an hour before bedtime to engage in a relaxing activity.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, spicy foods and large meals for two to three hours before sleep. If you feel hungry an hour before sleep, eat a light protein snack.

If you want to look better, feel better and improve your chances for optimal health and a longer lifespan, make the healthy habit of getting seven to nine hours of sleep a priority and go to bed. In other words, spend less time watching TV every evening and more time to count sheep. Goodnight, and sleep tight.