What is the greatest issue facing the United States of America? Whatever came to your mind just then, I bet it had to do with something that happens while you’re awake. Sleeping is sometimes thought of as a luxury, something to get through, or a waste of time. But more and more research is showing that sleep is integral to our physical and mental health, and it seems, one of the biggest problems Americans face today.
It’s well known that diet and exercise can improve our health, but sleep is rarely discussed. Few doctors ask about sleeping habits during their patients’ regular checkups. Yet getting the recommended seven – nine hours of sleep for adults can help prevent type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, weight gain, anxiety, depression, and cancer. This works conversely too – not getting sleep can increase your chances of getting sick. On a short-term basis, too little sleep can affect your ability to concentrate, and too much sleep can decrease your energy levels.
Still not convinced? The most successful people all value sleep. Tom Brady, winner of four Super Bowls, who I despise as a Giants fan but respect as a sleep advocate, attributes much of his success to his strict bedtime; Warren Buffet was known for forcing employees to go home for some shut-eye; Lebron James and Kobe Bryant sleep before games; not to mention that Olympic athletes and countless surgeons, who need rest in order to function at their optimal levels, abide by regimented sleep schedules.
Yet over half of Americans get less than the recommended sleep. Over half! American kids, who need it most, sleep less than in nearly all other countries. The American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the idea of pushing back school start time in 2013, and parents are encouraged to understand that their teenagers sleeping in aren’t being lazy, they’re just undergoing normal shifts in their body clocks, a natural part of puberty.
Why the US? In a capitalist country where we work more hours than our European counterparts, it’s no wonder that we too often choose being productive in the workplace over our own personal health, which is ironic, because more rest increases productivity.
And the smartphone isn’t helping either. Any light at night, including the glow from our phones, laptops, and televisions can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, delaying our circadian rhythms, which throws off natural cues that would otherwise tell us when we’re sleepy and when it’s time to be alert.
Fortunately, there are several ways to help you fall asleep: exercise, getting daylight, not snoozing, decreasing or cutting out alcohol and caffeine, going to sleep at the same time every night, CBT-I, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, sleep aids, creating a nightly ritual like reading – the list goes on, but what is important is to find something that works for you. When I had to wake up at 5:30 for work, I would take a hot bath the night before, drink a glass of chamomile tea, and meditate, and then I was conked.
So turn put down your phone at night and pick up The Great Gatsby. Or get into down dog and chant a few ohms. If you have trouble sleeping, remember that getting more sleep is easier for most than going to the gym or cutting out pizza, and the reward more immediate. Be productive and get some zzz’s.
Photographs and Research from Time Magazine