Everyone knows that for optimum health and function, few things are more important than sleep. We hear this from our doctors, the media, and from our moms. And yet so many people fail to prioritize sleep, or only give it attention when their quality of life and health is clearly suffering as a result. Even those who feel they are getting enough sleep may not realize that the quality of that sleep matters too. According to the CDC, 50-70 million American adults have a sleep disorder that prevents them from feeling well rested. Meanwhile, according to the UK’s Sleep Council, more than one third of Britons get less than six hours a night, when the recommended amount is around eight hours.
According to scientists, our understanding of how lack of sleep—and bad quality sleep—affects us has deepened even more in recent years. According to New Scientist: “In recent years, sleep has been labelled the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise, says Matt Walker at the University of California, Berkeley. But that’s underselling it: sleep is the foundation on which these two other pillars rest. ‘There is no tissue within the body and no process within the brain that is not enhanced by sleep, or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough,’ says Walker.”
The list of afflictions that lack of sleep can cause or worsen is striking. It can affect a long list of areas including emotions, appetite, immune system issues, and decision-making abilities. Even more concerning, it has been “linked to metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes” and “implicated in mental health problems including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.”
So now that we understand what science tells us about how a lack of sleep can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, what does it tell us about how not just to get more sleep, but better sleep too. One of the main hindrances of quality sleep is a marker of modern life: blue light. Our phones, laptops and tablets all emit a blue light that our bodies were not designed to look at for so many hours, and doing so can disrupt our circadian rhythms, or the natural cues that tell us when to sleep and wake. The sleep council advises that “LED displays are particularly troublesome when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. When it’s time to snooze, switch off your mobile phone, tablet, and any alarm clocks with a digital display.”
Another way to get better quality sleep is to avoid stimulants like caffeine and alcohol—even if you think they don’t prevent you from falling asleep. As sleep researcher Matthew Walker told NPR: “Some people, however, say, "I can have a cup of coffee after dinner and I fall asleep just fine, so I'm not one of those people that is sensitive to caffeine." And that's quite dangerous, because we also know that even if you can fall asleep, the depth of the sleep that you have when caffeine is swilling around within the brain is not going to be as deep anymore.”
But one of the most fundamental ways that science tells us we can improve our sleep is connected with how we spend our days. According to research from Northwestern University, feeling that one has a purpose in life can improve both the quantity and quality of sleep one gets. The Telegraph quoted one of the researchers as saying: “Helping people cultivate a purpose in life could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia,” said senior author Jason Ong, an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Illinois.”
While finding one’s purpose in life might be a tall order when you’re just trying to get a good night’s sleep, it’s good to know what science tells us we should be striving for.