By Jackson Sims, CEI Intern
There’s only so much time in the day, so it can be tempting to stay up late when we don’t get to do everything we had hoped. For some people, a few hours of sleep is a necessary sacrifice to catch up on unfinished work; for others, missed sleeping time is spent engaging in leisure activities or enjoyable hobbies, a phenomenon loosely described as “sleep procrastination” (Magalhaes et al., 2020). You might enjoy taking the time for self-care activities in the evening, but the truth is that healthy sleep is one of the most compassionate actions you can take for yourself. Proper sleep isn’t just about how long you spend sleeping, though. A full eight hours of sleep means little if it is frequently interrupted or lacking in quality. While the occasional “rough night” might not seem to be an issue, the effects of insufficient or low-quality sleep can add up over time, contributing to a more significant sleep deprivation problem. What sort of effects can we recognize or anticipate from missed sleep, and how can we take action to ensure our sleep is adequate?
The Effects of Insufficient Sleep
After a night of inadequate sleep, the immediate effects on you are obvious. Exhaustion, irritability, and an inability to focus are some of the most common experiences. Over a long period, however, more significant biological consequences may arise. Kiley, Twerry, and Gibbons (2019) found that disruptions to our sleep-wake cycle may be linked to hypertension, metabolic disorders, heart disease, and some cancers. Healthy sleeping patterns are also essential to the proper regulation of the immune system (Besedovsky et al., 2012). Simply put, adequate sleep is vital to short-and long-term physical health.
Poor sleep can also have an impact on mental health, particularly in regards to mood disorders. Although sleep isn’t necessarily the determining factor in mental health conditions, it has been linked to the development and prevalence of symptoms (Walker et al., 2020). On a day-to-day basis, poor sleep hygiene can lead to feelings of anger and frustration during the day, which can heavily impede our ability to focus, process emotions, and relate to others (Saghir et al., 2018). Poor sleep doesn’t just affect the person experiencing it; their family, friends, and coworkers may be affected as well. Proper sleep hygiene is not only self-care but community care as well.
The effects of lackluster sleep all center on the concept of sleep debt, where the amount of sleep we need “adds up” based on how much sleep we’ve had in the past (Healthline, 2019). For example, a person who needs eight hours of sleep might only be able to sleep for six hours, leaving them with a debt of two hours (and an overall need for ten hours of sleep the next night). These values can quickly add up; at the end of the week, a person whose ideal sleep time is eight hours who only slept for six hours a night might have a sleep debt of 14 hours. Unfortunately, our sleep debt can only be “paid off” by resting for that amount of time. This brings up an important question: How can we improve our sleep hygiene to combat (or completely avoid) sleep debt?
How to Improve our Sleep
For many of us, the biggest challenge to getting enough rest is falling asleep to begin with. Our use of technology before bed plays a major role in this. When we’re exposed to blue light— which can come from phone screens, laptops, and televisions—before bed, it can keep us from falling asleep or wake us up too early (NIOSH, n.d.). Children are particularly vulnerable to this effect; a literature review conducted by Hale et al. (2019) noted that 90% of studies centering around children’s technology use found a correlation between “screen time” and reduced sleeping time. Broadly speaking, the best strategy for falling asleep is to limit technology use before bedtime. For families, this time can be spent playing a board game, reading a book, or simply sharing stories about the day. Checking our phone and/or email before bed can become reflexive. Take the time to break the habit, and your sleep will improve drastically. With this in mind, while reducing technology use at night can help you fall asleep, there isn’t necessarily a guaranteed solution for staying asleep. In an article from the Harvard Health Letter (2019), Dr. Suzanne Bertisch mentions a number of possible obstacles to proper sleep, including lifestyle habits (such as late-night eating, napping, or caffeine consumption after 2 p.m.), certain medications, or underlying conditions (both physical and mental). If those obstacles are to be overcome, however, the next step may be to develop new, healthier habits. Dr. Bertisch recommends sleeping in “ideal” conditions (a room that is quiet, dark, and cool), getting regular exercise during the day, and waking up at the same time every morning, regardless of how much you’d like to sleep in. We’re never “doomed” to bad sleep—small adjustments to our daily lives can make more of a difference than we think!
As a whole, we can improve our sleep hygiene by making and breaking specific bedtime habits. Terms like “sleep-wake cycle” and “circadian rhythm” are constant reminders that sleep should be routine, consistent, and predictable. When external influences interfere with our body’s sleep patterns—whether these influences be certain types of light, specific foods, or even lingering worries about the coming day—we inhibit our capacity for healthy, rejuvenating sleep. Establishing a healthy sleep environment is a wonderful act of kindness for yourself, and the possible benefits are perfect examples of why self-care is so important. Proper sleep can improve all areas of our lives. If you think that your sleep practices are lacking, it might be beneficial to examine your nightly routines and seek areas of improvement. Take the time to make those changes, and give yourself constant, proper rest.
You deserve it!
Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archive.
Hale, L., Kirschen, G.W., LeBourgeois, M.K., Gradisar, M., Garrison, M.M., Montgomery-Downs, H., Kirschen, H., McHale, S.M., Chang, A., & Buxton, O.M. (2019). Youth screen media habits and sleep:
Sleep-friendly screen-behavior recommendations for clinicians, educators, and parents. Child Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America.
Harvard Health Letter. (2019). Top 4 reasons why you’re not sleeping through the night. Harvard Health Publishing.
Kiley, J.P., Twery, M.J., & Gibbons, G.H. (2019). The National Center on Sleep Disorders research—Progress and promise. Sleep Research Society.
Magalhaes, P., Cruz, V., Teixeira, S., Fuentes, S., & Rosario, P. (2020). An exploratory study on sleep procrastination: Bedtime vs. while-in-bed procrastination. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (n.d.). Color of the light.