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  • The Benefits of Sleep, and Tips for Combatting Insomnia

    Getting ample, quality sleep is vital to supporting sufficient mental health and wellness. This is due to the fact that sleep affects many aspects of an individual’s life, including energy levels, mood, and concentration. Considering one in three American adults do not meet the recommended sleep duration, and 10 to 30 percent of American adults experience symptoms of insomnia, more attention needs to be paid to the importance of a good night’s sleep. 

    Sleep serves multiple purposes in humans, one major purpose being restorative functions. There is evidence to suggest that sleep helps animals maintain their metabolic homeostasis. In terms of brain function, sleep serves a significant role in memory consolidation. The function of sleep, however, varies depending on the phase of sleep an individual is in. 

    There are four recognized, distinct phases of sleep people go through, which are classified as either Rapid Eye Motion (REM) or non-REM. These phases form a sleep cycle, which lasts around 90 minutes. One 7–8-hour sleep holds around five sleep cycles. The first phase of sleep, N1, only lasts upwards of seven minutes and serves to slow down heart rate and breathing. The next phase, N2, lasts around 25 minutes. In this stage, electrical activity in the brain decreases, along with heart rate and breathing. This stage is followed by N3, or “deep sleep.” When an individual is in deep sleep, their muscle and eye movement come to a halt, and brain waves slow down. At this stage of sleep, it is most difficult to wake a person up. 

    The final stage of sleep, N4, or REM sleep, varies in length depending on how many sleep cycles a person has undergone. Under REM sleep, one’s brain activity is like the brain activity of an awake person. REM sleep is key to long-term memory storage. 

    The CDC recommends that adults get seven hours of sleep every 24 hours, though this number varies by age. Failure to achieve adequate sleep can lead to many problems, both psychological and physical. According to CDC data, adults who do not sleep for seven hours are also more likely to report higher levels of obesity and physical inactivity. Chronic insomnia (when someone has difficulty sleeping for at least three days a week, for at least three months) has also been linked to higher blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Insomnia is also a major cause of daytime fatigue. 

    Insufficient sleep length can lead to difficulty concentrating, and memory problems, impacting mental health. Insomnia can lead to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Chronic insomnia can cause mood swings, irritability, and aggression. Poor sleep can also weaken someone’s ability to perform well in school and work. Fatigue and malaise, as well as an inability to concentrate and focus, can make it difficult to complete routine tasks, such as driving. Sleep deprivation has been shown to be a significant cause of motor vehicle accidents. 

    Sometimes problems an individual faces in their personal life can cause them to have insomnia. Stress, whether it is caused by work, school, or relationships, can be a major cause of difficulty sleeping. Another related cause is stress surrounding falling asleep, or worrying about insomnia, which can impair an individual’s ability to fall asleep. 

    Lifestyle practices can lead to insomnia. Having an irregular sleep plan can hinder sleep. Other factors that inhibit sleep include a lack of physical activity during the day, caffeine and alcohol consumption, and the use of electronic devices just before bedtime. Environmental or occupational factors, such as working night shifts, travel, and being in bright environments during the night can decrease the quality and length of sleep. There is also evidence that indicates that family history and genes play a role in sleep habits. 

    So, what can a person with poor sleep habits do to improve the quality or schedule of their sleep? 

    One of the most important habits a person can adopt to improve their sleep health is to set a consistent sleep schedule. This involves going to bed and waking up at around the same time every day, regardless of whether it is a weekend. This has to do with the fact that humans are creatures of habit and having a routine schedule in place will prevent staying up too late or waking up late. 

    Be aware of your use of electronics too close to bedtime. One should avoid using electronics for at least 30 minutes before going to bed. A 2020 study found that the use of screen time of more than 8 hours a day was correlated with a decrease in sleep duration. It also found a correlation between the use of a phone 30 minutes before bedtime, and lower sleep quality and sleep disturbances. To best steer clear of this problem, try to avoid excessive use of your phone during the day, or just before bedtime. Try to create a relaxing sleep environment. 

    Try to avoid drinking caffeine before going to bed. Caffeine works by blocking receptors of the neurotransmitter adenosine, a compound that makes people feel drowsy. While this can be helpful earlier in the day, when sleepiness can get in the way of doing tasks, it is probably best to avoid caffeine right before trying to fall asleep, given its effects on sleepiness. Additionally, try to avoid alcohol, or eating meals shortly before bedtime. 

    Physical exercise plays an important role in sleep health. According to a study from the National Sleep Foundation, published in 2020, intensive physical exercise during the day resulted in improved perceived sleep quality and efficiency. The National Institutes of Health recommends not exercising 5 to 6 hours before going to bed. Shortly before going to bed, try practicing a relaxing ritual. 

    Lastly, given that stress can be a leading cause of insomnia, one should work to engage in activities that reduce stress in order to combat sleep deprivation. This can include taking breaks from social media, practicing mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or talking to a psychologist.