Our modern way of life has changed the way we sleep. And though it’s hard to say it’s strictly for the worse, most of it still is.
Before the Industrial Revolution, when most people in the world lived in the country, humans would usually sleep in two parts, starting shortly after dark, waking around 10 or 11 p.m. to read, talk, eat, drink or have sex for an hour or two, then go back to bed for the night. Those days, eh, or rather nights are gone.
The light, noise, pace and demands of the 20th and 21st centuries have changed that. And it is taking a toll on our lives. Numerous sleep studies have found that sleep loss, regardless of the cause, is literally killing us.
Here’s how lack of sleep makes us less healthy:
Sleep loss leads to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, anxiety and it weakens your immune system.
People who don’t get enough sleep are 30 percent more likely to be obese while also having more cortisol in the bloodstream, a hormone that breaks down skin collagen and leads to wrinkles. At the same time, it decreases the amount of human growth hormone, which makes it harder for your body to repair itself.
Sleep loss has immediate and long-term effects on the brain. Besides being much more likely to cause depression and anxiety, it impairs memory and the ability to concentrate, reason or solve problems. People who say they’ve gotten used to getting six hours of sleep a night routinely do worse on mental alertness and performance tests than people who regularly get eight hours of sleep.
If that isn’t enough, the sleep-deprived have lower sex drive and lower fertility rates.
Convinced yet? OK, good. But now what? Don’t worry, there are things we can all do to help improve our sleep. Let’s start with five things we may be doing to undermine our sleep and how to fix it.
1. We’re watching too much TV. Yes, there are plenty of good shows on, but all that programming is giving us a false sense of urgency about seeing it all. We stay up late to finish watching episodes, movies, events or news and it’s costing us.
The fix: Set and maintain bedtimes. It worked when you were a kid and it will work now. Also, most cable companies now provide digital video recorders. Use them!
2. We’re giving ourselves iPad insomnia. Back in 2012, the American Medical Association issued a warning that even low levels of the blue light emanating from our phones, tablets, e-readers, computer and TV screens are picked up by our eyes and disrupt melatonin production, which is a naturally occurring hormone we make in the evening or darker settings that helps us sleep. If we can’t get away from them at night, it can become harder and harder for us to sleep.
The fix: Turn them off. Leave work at work and leave your electronic devices out of the bedroom. However, some e-book manufacturers are working on ways to eliminate the blue light, so you might not have to go back to reading books made of actual paper for long.
3. We’re eating dinner all wrong. Protein-heavy meals, with more than a glass of wine to drink, or too much dessert, coffee or caffeine-infused soda can set off our sleep, night after night. Protein is harder to digest, alcohol might make us feel sleepy for a while but can end up making us toss and turn later. Sugar and caffeine only wind us up and make it harder for us to get to sleep.
The fix: Cut back on the meat (except for fish) and add some grains like jasmine rice to your evening meal. Stick to one glass of wine with dinner or keep your after-dinner cocktails as far from bedtime as you can. Also, try drinking calming herbal teas. Instead of the extra dessert or soda, try foods like bananas, walnuts or yogurt, which offer lower amounts of sugar while the B6 in walnuts and bananas, and the calcium in yogurt help us relax and make melatonin.
4. Our bedrooms are no longer designed for sleep. Ideally, our sleeping spaces should be dark, quiet and cool. Somehow, we’ve let our living rooms, offices and children’s playrooms creep in.
The fix: Paint your bedroom walls darker, calming colors. Hang curtains or blinds that more effectively cut out light. Keep bedroom lighting shaded, dimmed or otherwise out of your eyes. Turn down the thermostat before you go to bed. The blankets and sheets should be plenty to keep you warm. And if you didn’t know already, a good mattress is important.
5. We’re using sleeping meds. It should only be a strict act of desperation to use any kind of sleeping medications. AND temporary. More than a night or two of their usage and they can create dependency that has long-term and terrible effects.
The fix: Don’t use them. Just don’t. Grab some soothing decaffeinated tea instead.
Also, if you’re not doing much exercise, it’s a good time to start since, in one study, people slept better when they got at least 150 minutes of exercise a week.