Just like food and water, sleep is a biological necessity — during sleep, your body is busy fighting off viruses and other pathogens, operating a waste removal system to clean the brain, looking for cancer cells and getting rid of them, repairing injured tissues, and forming memories. Getting enough sleep can improve health, mood, and mental clarity. It is important for the functioning of our heart and other organs.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends the following amounts of sleep nightly:
• Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps).
• Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps).
• Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps).
• Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours.
• Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours.
• Adults should sleep 7 or more hours per night.
There is individual variability in sleep need — talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about getting too much or too little sleep.
There are many medical conditions that can cause or contribute to poor sleep. (Some of the most common are breathing disorders such as sleep apnea. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious complications such as heart failure or even a stroke. If you have trouble breathing while asleep, talk to your healthcare provider.)
But many obstacles to a good night’s sleep are environmental or behavioral — which means they may be improved by a change in sleep environment, habits, activities, or bed and sleep accessories.
Where you sleep matters. Have a good sleep environment that is very dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable. To create a good sleep environment:
• Give yourself enough time in bed to get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling well rested.
• Make the sleeping area very dark if possible, blocking out lights in the room (especially blue and white lights, such as clocks or watches with white- or blue-lit dials, computers, cell phones, and televisions).
• Use room-darkening shades or heavy, lined draperies to cover windows.
• Block any light entering the room.
• Use an eye mask if it’s hard to avoid lights from traffic or street lamps.
• Have a comfortably cool room temperature — about 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit is comfortable for most sleepers, but you may need to experiment.
Good sleep habits (sometimes referred to as “sleep hygiene”) can help you get a good night’s sleep. These are some behaviors that can help improve your sleep health:
• Go to bed and get up at about the same times every day, including days off.
• Ideally, you should go to bed early enough that you don’t need an alarm to wake up.
• During the day, get some exercise
• Even a 10-minute walk will improve sleep, and more is better.
• Plan on finishing exercise at least three hours before sleep is planned.
• Getting bright light during the daytime strengthens biological rhythms that promote alertness during work and sleep at the end of your day. During the daytime, try to spend at least 30 minutes outside in the sunlight
• Getting bright light during the first hours of your day is particularly helpful.
• Even time spent outside on a cloudy day is better than exclusive exposure to dim indoor light.
• If you can’t get outside, spend time in a brightly lit indoor area.
• To condition your brain to relax when you go into the bedroom, use it only for sleep and intimacy — don’t watch TV or use digital devices in bed if you can avoid it.
• Follow a relaxing routine 1.5 hours before bedtime to help your body make the transition from being awake to falling asleep.
• Avoid computer and phone screens, as well as excitement like watching an action movie or reading upsetting news stories.
• Brushing your teeth, washing your face, and getting into a pre-sleep routine will help you relax.
• Transition to dim lighting during this time.
• Taking a warm bath 30 minutes to two hours before bedtime can help promote relaxation and optimize body temperature changes that aid in sleep.
• Avoid heavy or spicy meals three hours before your regular bedtime.
• Limit liquids several hours before sleep to avoid having to get up to go to the bathroom.
• Some medications (both prescribed and over the counter) can affect sleep. Talk to your prescribing doctor about this possible side effect.
• Avoid alcohol near bedtime. It may help you fall asleep but can cause sleep disturbances. If you plan to drink alcohol, finish a few hours before bedtime. (Use of some other recreational drugs can also negatively affect sleep.)
• Avoid caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine for five or more hours before sleep is planned — more if you are sensitive to these substances.
• If you get very sleepy earlier than usual, then go to bed. This will allow extra time for sleep.
• Drowsiness is your body’s way of saying that you need sleep. Your body may be fighting off an infection or needing extra sleep to recover from something that happened during the day. Researchers have found that sleep and the immune system work together to fight off viruses and other pathogens. Your body also needs more sleep after experiencing high mental or physical demands.
There are many supplements, like magnesium, that claim to improve sleep (evidence for magnesium’s efficacy is not solid, but it does seem to help some people). Other sleep-aid supplements include melatonin, valerian root, chamomile, hops, lavender, skullcap, passionflower, tryptophan, L-theanine, and glycine.
Some of these are traditional remedies and many are not proven to be effective. Before adding any supplement to your diet, talk to your healthcare provider about your health goals.
Good nutrition can help all body functions, including sleep. Adding vegetables rich in magnesium, like squash or broccoli, or nuts like cashews and almonds, to your diet is good for your health, whether or not your sleep improves.
Use a comfortable mattress and pillows. You spend one-third of your life in bed, and an investment in comfort can be repaid in more-restful sleep. Mattresses wear out over time. If yours creaks or has lumps or a depression where you sleep, or if you wake up feeling stiff, it might be time to replace it. Similarly, pillows accumulate dust mites and lose their resilience, so replace them every one to two years.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.