Why Sleep Is Important & How to Get More

Written by Jeremy Schumacher, MA, LMFT

We just turned our clocks forward, partaking in the biannual celebration of messing up our circadian rhythm. Many of my clients were a little off this week, feeling more tired or more irritable, but many of them missed the connection this had with their lack of sleep. While most of us are aware that sleep is important, very few of my clients get enough sleep, nor do many folks I work with prioritize their sleep. Granted, I did work in Higher Ed, and I can say with a high level of confidence that very few college students are getting enough sleep. But how is it that so many people who know sleep is important are walking through life in a sleep-deprived haze? Culturally, sleep isn’t given much priority. Research shows starting school later helps students’ performance, yet no major schedule changes are forthcoming, lest we upset normal business hours. In school “pulling an all-nighter” is common to study for a big exam or finish a project. The early bird gets the worm, and nights out and time socializing cut into even more time for sleep. Somehow all these factors have led to people thinking they can “make it up” by taking a nap or sleeping in late one day. Unfortunately, that is not how sleep works (not to diminish the importance of resting when we need to).

One of the major paradigm shifts I talk through with clients is to think in terms of sleep hygiene. In the same way we shower, brush our teeth, hair, and moisturize, we should have regular routines that benefit our sleep just like we have routines for our physical hygiene. We have great examples of how bedtime routines look for children, but somehow we grow up and think bedtime isn’t needed for adults. Bath time, reading books, saying prayers and snuggling are a solid blueprint for how we can build bedtime back into our schedule outside of childhood. Winding down before bed is great, but typically our brain needs time to get ready to rest, and our body also needs signals that sleep is upcoming. Once we have a good routine, our body runs on auto-pilot for this, but when we are short on sleep or looking to get a better schedule we need to be intentional about setting a healthy routine. Having food or drinks high in melatonin or tryptophan are great natural sleep inducers. Chamomile tea, milk, tart cherries (or cherry juice), pistachios and other nuts are all great ideas to help signal to your body that sleep is imminent. I personally think brewing some tea is great for the physical signal, but also the ritual of heating water, steeping the leaves, waiting just a bit for it all to cool down and enjoying the warmth is a great way to get both mind and body ready for sleep. But whatever pre-bed routine works for you, having a ritual attached is great to get your body and brain on the same page. Yoga, breathing techniques, or sleep meditations are fantastic for this as well.

Typically I recommend the hour before sleep should be geared towards getting ready for bed. General tips include avoiding eating a whole meal or vigorous exercise within two hours of trying to sleep. Avoiding screens is preferred, but at least turning the brightness down and using a blue light filter can also be helpful. Pay attention to your preferences for level of light/dark in your sleeping space, as well as temperature. A common seemingly small problem that comes up with many couples I work with is a difference in sleeping temperature, so I recommend for many couples to have different sheets and blankets so each person can be comfortable.

Prioritizing your sleep has a plethora of benefits. Healthy sleep promotes better brain functioning in areas of concentration and memory, improves emotional regulation, and helps your body to balance energy levels and appetite. Your cells regrow while resting, and your brain actually does its own self-cleaning while we sleep and flushes out the toxins it accumulates over the day. So, make sleep a priority! Getting better sleep hygiene is a process, not an event, so plan for at least two weeks of being intentional with your pattern before it starts to feel more like a habit. Happy sleeping!