Every May, like clockwork, groups of college students come into my office with one complaint: They are exhausted. Many are convinced they have mono, anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome or some peculiar disease they have read about on the internet. And they want blood work taken to find out what is wrong with them.
And every May I ask the same question: How much sleep have you gotten over the last month? While most believe they have gotten sufficient sleep, the truth is, they haven’t. Majority of the teens and young adults I query have gotten less than 6 hours per sleep at night. No wonder they feel like they have a disease.
Inadequate sleep is a very common problem among children and adults. Unfortunately, there are serious ramifications of too little sleep. In fact, research shows that 30 percent of people are sleep deprived. Adults with inadequate amounts of sleep are at risk for physical, psychological and even neurological health issues. These include cognitive impairment like confusion and an inability to concentrate, depression, anxiety, irritability, cardiovascular disease, immunosuppression, metabolic disorders, obesity and more.
How much sleep is needed?
So how much sleep do you need to avoid these side effects? The short answer is that it depends on your constitution. But here are some recommended guidelines for adults. Average adults need between 7-9 hours routinely. Those who get less than six hours per night consistently over several months are considered sleep deprived. Teens need 9-10 hours of sleep every night and almost 30 percent say that they aren’t getting enough sleep. When teens are sleep deprived, their grades go down, they experience mood volatility and their driving can suffer.
The younger the child, the higher the sleep needs are. Elementary aged children should get 10-11 hours of sleep at night and preschoolers should get 11-13. Many parents read these numbers and are shocked because most of their children don’t get anywhere near this much sleep particularly in their teens.
Why aren’t we getting enough sleep?
In an age when we are so concerned about eating organic food, getting enough exercise, lowering intake of cholesterol and managing our weight, why, we should ask, do we fail to pay attention to one of the most important facts to good health? The answer is simple: We believe that we can’t get more sleep. Most of us parents spend hours in the car driving kids from one activity to another, other parents spend late hours at work and still others can’t sleep because of insomnia or a mood disorder.
Many adults and kids simply don’t know how to get better sleep. After all, when was the last time (if ever) your doctor talked to you about healthy sleep hygiene? One would think that a physician would always ask about sleep. But we usually don’t because we, like you, feel that everyone’s lives are so busy, that we can’t increase the amount of time we sleep.
However, we must pay attention to the need that God gave each one of us to rest. After all, in Genesis God rested. He made our bodies to need adequate time of refreshment to function well, serve Him and enjoy life.
Adults and kids who are sleep deprived can’t focus, perform well at work, school, sports or keep their moods up. In fact, sleep deprivation can look exactly like ADHD, depression and anxiety. I wonder how many kids are inaccurately diagnosed with disorders that really stem from too little sleep?
How to get better sleep
So what can we do to improve the amount and quality of sleep for our kids and ourselves? First, we must pay attention to good sleep hygiene. Here are 10 important things to remember.
- Regulate your circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is our body’s 24-hour nighttime, daytime cycle. It cues our body when to sleep and when to wake up. Sleep deprivation throws our circadian rhythm off and our body doesn’t know how to respond. The best way to keep your rhythm consistent is to do tasks as close to the same time every day that you can. Exercise, eat, work and go to bed about the same time every day.
- Control light exposure. This is one of the easiest things we can do to improve sleep. Open and close your bedroom blinds at the same time each day. Minimize light when you are sleeping and don’t be around bright lights before bedtime. If you awaken in the night, keep lighting in your room low.
- Exercise. You don’t have to be a gym rat or marathon runner to improve your sleep. A brisk walk after dinner around the neighborhood, kicking a soccer ball in the back yard with your child or going for an easy bike ride can be sufficient to help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep.
- Keep your bedroom temperature cool. Sleeping in a warm room can make you restless so try to keep your bedroom a few degrees cooler than the rest of your house.
- Create a bedtime ritual. Yes, even grown-ups need time to wind down and get ready for bed. You can read, listen to calming music or pray. This tells your body that it’s time to relax.
- No electronics the hour before bedtime. The light from electronic screens tricks our bodies into thinking that it’s still daytime. So, turn off the television, computer and cell phone one hour before you go to bed. Also, while a show may help you fall asleep, it won’t help you stay asleep.
- Keep your bedroom free from electronics. The bedroom should be a place of rest and quiet. Many shows, computer games, etc. cause us to be charged up. It is important to create an environment where your mind doesn’t have to concentrate on anything—even a game of solitaire.
- Stop caffeine and nicotine at least 4 hours before bedtime. These are stimulants and can prevent you from falling asleep.
- Skip that glass of wine before bed. Some people take a little wine before bed because wine does help most people fall asleep. The problem is, it won’t help you stay asleep and sleep quality will not be as good.
- Eat turkey and drink milk. It turns out that mom was right when she told you to drink warm milk before bedtime. Milk and turkey have L-Tryptophan, an amino acid that can help you sleep.
God created our bodies so that we can enjoy life, honor Him and serve others among other great things. He calls our bodies the temple for the Holy Spirit and if we take Him at His word, we have an obligation to take the best care of that temple that we can. And let it sleep.
Dr. Meg Meeker is a pediatrician in Michigan and a best-selling author of several books on parenting healthy kids.