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Planning a great day? Start right, with a good night's sleep!

Sleep. Ah, blissful slumber. You probably know the feeling- the relief and total contentment of curling up into your blankets at night and knowing you have nowhere else to be. You can finally close your eyes and drift off to other realms, or to the simple pleasure of going nowhere at all but into unconsciousness.

And then, of course, there is the other end of sleep- waking up to a piercing alarm and thinking to yourself, “Nooooo! It can’t be morning yet!!!” And the bed is so supremely comfy that getting out of it just seems wrong. But you do it anyway, because, hey, we’ve all got responsibilities and demands outside of sleep.

But let’s not dismiss sleep as a luxury. Sleep is vital to our metabolism, our mental health, our immunity, and our ability to perform throughout the day. If you’ve ever had a rough night (and if you haven’t, I’d really like to know your secret), you know how dramatically lack of sleep can impact you.

The answer to the question “why do we sleep?” is a complex one, and in fact, we aren’t totally sure of the answers yet. But here’s an overview of what we do know.

Over the course of the night, we move through four stages of sleep. The first three are non-REM. They include light and deep sleep. The deep sleep we enter in stage 3 is correlated most strongly to feeling refreshed and alert the next day. In these stages, our heart rates and blood pressure decrease, our breathing slows, and our muscles relax. As we move into REM sleep, these stats will go back up, and our muscles will temporarily paralyze to protect us from harm as we enter into dreams. We’ll cycle through these stages repeatedly over the course of the night.

The different stages of sleep also play a role in learning and memory, though researchers are still studying the exact mechanisms of this. Both REM and deep sleep appear to impact our ability to retain what we’ve learned. Interestingly, some studies suggest that the role of REM sleep may be stronger if there was strong emotion attached to the learning.

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, and kids and teenagers need even more. Older adults need slightly less. In the short-term, lack of sleep can cause problems with poor attention, delayed cognition, poor memory, and low alertness.

Interestingly, it does appear that those who chronically do not get adequate sleep may build up some level of tolerance to this lack. However, according to the American Sleep Foundation, chronic loss of sleep is correlated to increased risk of chronic diseases- whether you think you're suffering for it or not. These include diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, poor mental health, and slow reflexes. So even if we think we’re doing okay on 5 or 6 hours of sleep, it’s worth making some changes to try to reach at least 7 hours a night.

We can increase our chances of getting a good night’s sleep by taking the time to wind down at the end of the day. This means avoiding stimulants, especially coffee, in the evening. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, you may need to cut it off in the early afternoon. Gentle stretching or restorative yoga are great choices to help us ease the body into a relaxed state. Breathwork can also be beneficial, as it helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or our “rest and digest” phase. Try getting comfy, closing your eyes, and taking a series of long, deep breaths with a long exhale.

If sleep eludes you, you may find diffusing oils like lavender or vetiver helpful. There are also a number of teas available with soothing herbs like chamomile, or valerian root, which is a bit stronger. Supplements such as melatonin or magnesium may also help- melatonin is the sleep hormone, and magnesium has a relaxing effect on the brain and body through its impact on neurotransmitters. However, supplements should always be discussed with a physician first. Chronic sleep issues may require a sleep study to identify underlying issues.

We also want to avoid stimulating activities like action shows or intense exercise before bed. These can activate our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares our body for fight or flight. This is not the state for restful sleep! Choose calm activities instead.

You may also have heard about the negative effects of blue light from our electronic devices. While blue light is fine during the day, we want to avoid it for an hour or two before bed because it suppresses our melatonin production. We can do this by shutting off our devices altogether- this is a great opportunity to pick up a healthy habit like reading or preparing for the next day instead! We can also use blue light glasses, or a blue light blocking app.

And lastly, we want to sleep in a dark, cool room. Any light will be read by cells in our eyes- yes, even through your eyelids- and interfere with our circadian rhythms and their control of our wake and sleep cycles, suppressing melatonin. The body also drops in temperature during the night, so it’s best to be just a little cool rather than too warm. Improper temperature extremes can interfere with our ability to fall and stay asleep.

I'll make a note here about alcohol consumption before bed too, as this is important. It may seem like alcohol helps us fall asleep by acting as a sedative, but it actually sabotages our natural sleep cycle. It can reduce the amount of time we spend in REM sleep, which we need for a restorative night. Alcohol may be especially disruptive later in the night or the early hours of the next day, making it less obvious that it is causing problems!

Sleep may be a complex process within our brains, but it need not be a source of stress. Try some of these suggestions to achieve a restful night’s sleep. You’ll function better for it!