Those of you who know me, know that this week we have been on the move – relocating your life from one state to another in 30 days is no small feat! Needless to say there has been a lot of meals on the go, planning, and packing, but what there has not been is a lot of sleeping.

Sleep is important. We all know how it feels to not get enough sleep, but yet we often sacrifice sleep for other things (Game of Thrones anyone?).

Sleep is essential for our health and well-being, yet millions of people do not get enough sleep. For example, surveys conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) revealed that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders, and that 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. Furthermore, more than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities.

The damage from lack of sleep can occur in an instant (e.g. falling asleep at the wheel), or it can cause harm over time (e.g. raising the risk for chronic health problems). Sleep deficiency can also affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.

So, How Much Sleep Do I Need?

Most people are aware the body needs sleep. After all, sooner or later we get tired. But just how much sleep do we need? This is difficult to say because like many other things, everyone’s individual sleep needs vary. In general, most adults function well with 16 hours of wakefulness and an average of eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness on as little as six hours of sleep. Others can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept ten hours (this is SO me). And, contrary to common myth, the need for sleep doesn’t decline with age – what may change, is the ability to sleep for six to eight hours at one time.

Some people need more sleep than others due to metabolic reasons. Even the same person at different stages of life will need differing amounts of sleep. And even that individual will need different amounts of sleep depending on his or her activity level.

For example, if you decide to become involved in serious athletic training, then you will need extra sleep. The more physical activity you do, the more the muscles and nervous system will break down in the natural course of experiencing stress on the body. The body’s rebuilding process occurs mainly during sleep. So naturally, the more active you are, the more time it takes to rebuild your systems and the more sleep you need.

What Causes My Sleeplessness

Stress. According to sleep experts, the top cause of short-term sleeping challenges is stress. Usually the sleep difficulty ends when the stressful situation passes, however, if short-term sleep problems such as insomnia aren’t managed properly from the beginning, they can persist long after the original stress has passed.

Caffeine and Alcohol. Drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening, exercising close to bedtime, following an irregular morning and nighttime schedule, and working or doing other mentally intense activities right before or after getting into bed can disrupt sleep.

Travel. Traveling also disrupts sleep, especially jet lag and traveling across multiple time zones. This can upset your biological or “circadian” rhythms.

Sleep Environment. Environmental factors such as a room that’s too hot or cold, too noisy or too brightly lit can be a barrier to sleep. And interruptions from children or other family members can also disrupt sleep. Other influences to pay attention to are the comfort and size of your bed and the habits of your sleep partner. If you have to lie beside someone who has different sleep preferences, snores, can’t fall or stay asleep, or has other sleep difficulties, it often becomes your problem too!

Risks of Sleeplessness

Lack of Sleep and Driving. According to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research (1998) and reports from the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA) (2002), many high-profile accidents are partly attributed to people suffering from a severe lack of sleep.

Drivers falling asleep is responsible for at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths each year in the United States. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), one to four percent of all highway crashes are due to sleepiness, especially in rural areas.

Physical Health. Sleep plays a critical role in physical health. Sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

Weight Gain. Furthermore, sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. Many people believe that hunger is related to willpower and learning to control the call of your stomach, but that’s incorrect. Hunger is controlled by two hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your ghrelin level rises and leptin decreases. This causes you to feel hungrier than you would when you’re rested.

Leptin is a hormone that is produced in your fat cells. The less leptin you produce, the more your stomach feels empty. The more ghrelin you produce, the more you stimulate hunger while also reducing the amount of calories you burn and increasing the amount fat you store. In other words, you need to control leptin and ghrelin to successfully lose weight, but sleep deprivation makes that nearly impossible. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinoloy and Metabolism found that sleeping less than six hours triggers the area of your brain that increases your need for food while also depressing leptin and stimulating ghrelin.

If that’s not enough, scientists also discovered exactly how sleep loss creates an internal battle that makes it nearly impossible to lose weight. When you don’t sleep enough, your cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is frequently associated with fat gain. Cortisol also activates reward centers in your brain that make you want food. Cortisol shuts down the areas of your brain that leave you feeling satisfied after a meal, meaning you feel hungry all the time—even if you just ate a big meal.

Ability to Fight Off Illness. Another system that relies on sufficient sleep is the immune system. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which your immune system responds. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble fighting common infections.

What Happens When I Sleep?

What exactly happens when you hit the sack and head off to dreamland? First of all, you go through a light sleep stage. Once you lie down and become relaxed, you might dose off. Maybe you will go to sleep fully at this point, but often you will reawaken without fully cognizant vision. Not long after you maybe doze off again. This is what is called the threshold stage of sleep – this is not a true deep sleep and does not provide all of the benefits slumberland should.

If all goes well, you will enter into the first stage of real sleep shortly after the threshold stage. During this phase, bodily processes slow down, body temperature drops slightly, and the heart rate drops too. Again, this is not a very deep sleep.Like the threshold stage this type of sleep is not sufficient for the body to adequately recover.

After some time, you enter the second stage of sleep. This is much deeper and your body processes slow down further. This process continues until your body enters into its deepest sleep stage, where rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) occurs. Generally, it takes one to two hours for your body to reach this stage. This phase is where you start dreaming, but oddly enough, in this phase your body processes speed up – your heart rate increases and blood pressure can fluctuate. It is in this phase that those fantastic dreams you experience occur. This phase is the end of the sleep cycle, but you go through several of these full cycles throughout the course of a night. Each cycle lasts about one to two hours each. Once the REM cycle has concluded, the entire cycle starts over again, which explains why it is easier to awake at certain times as opposed to others.

Sleep and Working Out

I’ve been asked time and time again whether to workout in the morning or at night, and honestly, the answer is neither. Training early in the day can drain many people and cause groggy workouts that are less than full effort. Similarly, you do not want to train too late in the day either because your body and mind are fatigued from the day leading to less than ideal training sessions. Another reason to avoid evening workouts is because it can impact your ability to fall asleep. Maximum effort workouts require a heightened level of awareness and energy, which is hard to come down off of in time for bed. The reality is, however, that most of us who are professionals and work each day may not the ability to train mid-day. Many people have a distinct preference – choose what is right for you (as for me, I am an early morning peep).

Strategizing for Short (Less Than Ideal) Nights

Sometimes it is not possible to get all of your required sleep during the night. In that case, try to find the time to shut your door and take a brief nap at some point during the day (I’m talking 5-10 minutes, not an hour). Elite weightlifters do this a lot – some like to take a short nap before training, others prefer to take one after training, and many do both. Those who train at a professional level often have three or four short training sessions over the course of the day with nap time scheduled in between.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

According to leading sleep researchers, there are several techniques to combat common sleep problems:

  • Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule
  • Don’t drink or eat caffeine four to six hours before bed and minimize daytime use
  • Don’t smoke, especially near bedtime or if you awake in the night
  • Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before sleep
  • Get regular exercise
  • Minimize noise, light, and excessive hot and cold temperatures where you sleep
  • Develop a regular bed time and go to bed at the same time each night
  • Try and wake up without an alarm clock
  • Attempt to go to bed earlier every night for certain period; this will ensure that you’re getting enough sleep
  • Skip the late-afternoon nap, as it can make it harder to sleep at bedtime

While there’s no hard number that applies to all people, a good goal is to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. It might not seem like much, but it will likely make all the difference and impact more than any other health decision you make. Catch that train to slumberland earlier than usual tonight and check out how it impacts your overall health