Need a Good Night's Sleep? Try These Tips.
Mar 06, 2023 | Family Medicine | Share:
You probably already know that sleep is important. But do you know why?
You might be surprised to learn that sleep does so much more for your body than help you feel rested for the next day.
Our guide to sleep will help you know what really goes on in your body while you’re asleep, how to improve the quality of your sleep, and what you should do if you’re having trouble sleeping at night.
Why Your Body Needs Sleep
Sleep is essential to your body’s systems. You need sufficient, quality sleep each night so that your body can function properly. Sleep impacts brain function, hormone regulation and production, tissue formation, and even your immune system.
Because the impact of sleep is so extensive, it’s impossible to list all the things that sleep does for your body. Here are just a few things your body systems do while you sleep.
- Brain: You may not be actively thinking while you sleep, but your brain is hard at work. While you’re asleep, your brain performs several housekeeping tasks such as clearing out waste and storing new information. When teachers say to get a good night’s sleep before taking a test, they’re not just trying to keep you awake; your brain truly functions better when you’re well-rested.
- Heart and lungs: When you sleep, your heart rate and respiratory rate slow and your blood pressure goes down. Sleep allows your cardiovascular system to rest and recover, and your heart doesn’t have to work as hard. Lack of sleep has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.1
- Immune system: Your body uses cytokines to fight infection and activate the immune response, and peak cytokine production happens while you sleep. Sleep also improves T-cell function, which fight off viral infections and boost cellular immunity.2 You’re also more likely to get sick when exposed to an illness if you’re sleep deprived.3
- Muscles and tissues: When you sleep, your body has the opportunity to repair your muscles and grow new tissues. Studies have also shown that individuals who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to lose muscle mass than those who sleep at least 8 hours each night.4
- Hormones: Your body regulates the production of cortisol (a stress hormone) while you sleep. Cortisol impacts the production of several other hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid hormones.
- Metabolism: Have you ever noticed that you're hungrier or have increased cravings after a night of poor sleep? That’s because sleep also regulates your hunger hormones (leptin, ghrelin, and insulin). Sleep also impacts the way your cells convert food to energy.
Everyone will occasionally sleep poorly. While you may not feel your best the next day, that one night of bad sleep won’t have long-term consequences. But to stay healthy and keep your body functioning properly, you need to get sufficient, consistent, and quality sleep.
Are You Getting Enough Sleep?
You’ve probably heard that you need to get eight hours of sleep every night. But the truth is, every person is different. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to feel their best. So how do you really know if you’re getting enough sleep?
Your body will let usually let you know if you’re not getting enough sleep or if the sleep you’re getting is low-quality. It may sound simple, but if you’re getting enough quality sleep, you’ll wake up feeling rested each day. You shouldn’t need to “catch up” on missed sleep on the weekends, and you may find yourself waking up before your alarm clock.
If you’re not getting enough quality sleep, you probably don’t feel your best. While every person is different, there are some classic signs that you’re not getting enough sleep:
- You may have difficulty waking up, and you may have trouble staying awake when you’re sitting still (like for a lecture or while you’re reading).
- You may also have difficulty focusing on tasks or paying attention to what’s going on around you.
- You find that you’re irritable, grumpy, or highly sensitive to lights, sounds, or touch
There are plenty of reasons you may not be getting enough quality sleep. Everyone is busy, and it can be hard to prioritize sleep: you may have extra demands at work, or there may just be other things you’d rather do. (Nearly everyone has had the experience of staying out too late or watching one-too-many episodes of a TV show.)
Other factors such as stress, anxiety, or depression can make it difficult to fall asleep. Both acute and chronic illnesses can also impact your ability to sleep. It’s never easy to sleep when you’ve got an upper respiratory infection, but chronic illness and pain can also make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep.
While you may not be able to control every factor that’s contributing to a lack of sleep, there are certain things everyone can do to get a better night’s sleep.
How to Get Better Sleep at Night
For many, the key to a better night of sleep is practicing better sleep hygiene. While many people associate hygiene with cleanliness, hygiene is actually any practice that helps you stay healthy and prevent disease. Good dental hygiene keeps your teeth and gums healthy while preventing decay and gum disease. In the same way, sleep hygiene includes habits that help you stay healthy by getting enough restful sleep each night.
Sleep hygiene habits differ from person to person. Everyone is different and has different sleep needs, so certain strategies may work better for you. Some ideas for helping you improve your sleep hygiene include:
- Have a set time for going to sleep and waking up. Bedtime isn’t just for kids! Good sleep hygiene usually includes a consistent bedtime and waketime. While the actual times will vary based on your sleep needs and schedule, you should plan to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. (Your body will tell you if you need to adjust for more.)
- Minimize the use of screens before bedtime. We get it: watching a favorite show before bed is an enjoyable way to wind down and end the day. But the blue light emitted by screens interferes with your circadian rhythms and can make it difficult for your body to know it’s time to go to sleep. Stop using screens about thirty minutes before you plan to go to bed.
- Your bedroom is for sleep. Whenever possible, make your bedroom a place where sleep happens. If you work from home, avoid working in your bed or bedroom. Promote sleep by making your bedroom as cool, dark, and quiet as you can. And don’t underestimate the power of a white noise machine or app, a fan, a comfortable mattress and bedding, or blackout curtains.
- Limit caffeine. You don’t have to give up your morning cup of coffee, but avoid having any caffeine within five hours of your planned bedtime. Caffeine late in the day can make it difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. (And if you’re relying on caffeine to get through the day, you probably need to implement other strategies to improve the quality or quantity of your sleep.)
- Get regular, moderate exercise. Exercise has many benefits and can help reduce stress and boost your immune system. But regular, moderate exercise can also help you get a better night of sleep. Exercise can also provide a natural energy boost during the day.
- Create a sleep routine that works for you and helps you relax. Sleep routines are different for everyone, and your sleep routine can be as simple or elaborate as you like. Many like to take a shower or wash their face, brush their teeth, read a book, take vitamins, reflect on the day or pray, and put on comfortable pajamas. Whatever you do, make sure your sleep routine helps you relax and is screen-free.
If you feel like you’re not getting enough quality sleep, these sleep hygiene tips can be a great place to start.
What Not to Do for Sleep
If you’re not getting enough sleep or having difficulty falling asleep, it may be tempting to try other approaches to improving your sleep. But some approaches can actually be harmful to your health or negatively impact the quality of your sleep.
- Don’t self-medicate with sleeping pills. The temporary use of small doses of melatonin may be helpful, but you should always talk to your primary care doctor before starting a new supplement. Never take cold medicine such as Nyquil to make you drowsy or take a prescription sleeping pill that belongs to someone else.
- Don’t drink alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol does has a sedative effect and it can make you feel sleepy, but it can actually make your sleep worse. While you may fall asleep quickly after a drink or two, it also increases the likelihood that you’ll wake in the night and have difficulty falling back asleep.
- Don’t smoke or use nicotine products. You’re probably already aware of the many health risks associated with smoking or the use of nicotine products. But nicotine is also a stimulant and can make it harder for you to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Don’t take naps. While short naps (10-20 minutes) early in the day can help if you had a poor night of sleep, longer, later naps can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Avoid naps after about 3:00 pm.
If you find that attempts at improving your sleep hygiene aren’t helping or you’re using one of these methods to help you sleep, you may need to enlist the help of your primary care doctor.
When to See Your Primary Care Doctor for Help
Your primary care doctor wants you to be healthy and feel your best, so they’re the perfect person to talk to if you’re having trouble with your sleep. Your primary care doctor can help if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, not feeling rested after a full night of sleep, or if you find yourself reaching for harmful sleep aids.
Your doctor will usually ask you about your sleep and energy level when you come for your annual wellness exam. But if you’re having difficulty with your sleep outside of a regular checkup, you can still get help. Your primary care doctor will check for any underlying causes of your sleep disturbances or fatigue while examining other symptoms you may be having.
In many cases, your primary care doctor will be able to address your sleep issues without the use of a specialist. Your doctor will treat any underlying causes while helping you develop other strategies that can help you get a better night of sleep. If a sleep specialist is needed, your primary care doctor can make that referral for you and help you choose a provider that will fit your specific needs.
Quality sleep is key to living a full and healthy life. If you’re having trouble sleeping or just tired of feeling tired all of the time, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. And if you don’t have a primary care doctor, our doctors are accepting new patients at all five Birmingham MedHelp locations.
1 How does sleep affect your heart health? CDC. Accessed 20 February 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/sleep.htm
2 Besedovsky, L., Lange, T. & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch - Eur J Physiol 463, 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
3 Cohen, S. et al. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of internal medicine, 169(1), 62-67. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2008.50
4 Lamon, S. et al. (2021). The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment. Physiological Reports, 9(1). doi: 10.14814/phy2.14660