Ask Dr. Dylan: Why do we need sleep?
There’s nothing like curling up in bed at the end of a long day, especially as the nights grow longer in fall and winter. Put as Dr. Dylan Wyatt, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s, explains most of us could do with spending a bit more time under the blankets, though.
Why do we need sleep?
Dr. Dylan: We should spend around ⅓ of our lives asleep! I’m sure we’ve all thought at some point “if only I didn’t need to sleep, I could get so much more done!”. Research says the large amount of time we spend sleeping is a side effect of the complexity of our brains and bodies. When we sleep the brain is hard at work interpreting all the neural connections we made during the day, helping learn from our experiences and creating long term memories. There are also some repair and cleaning functions that occur – early research suggests if we disrupt these maintenance processes there can be long-term consequences for the brain such as dementia.
Getting enough sleep also helps improve our body’s metabolism, letting it utilize hormones such as insulin and cortisol more effectively to store sugars and burn fat. People who get enough sleep have a lower risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Plus, they also report lower rates of depression and anxiety.
How much sleep do different ages need?
Dr. Dylan: More than ⅓ of Americans (both adults and kids!) don’t get enough sleep at night, which has steadily risen over the past 10-15 years. Adults over the age of 18 need at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Teens need 8-10 hours. School age kids need 9-12 hours. These numbers are the general recommendation, everyone’s sleep needs will vary but you probably need more sleep than you think.
What are some best practices for getting enough, high quality sleep?
Dr. Dylan: Consistency is key. Try going to bed around the same time every night and waking up around the same time every morning – it can be tempting to sleep in on weekends but this can actually make our sleep/wake cycle during the week worse! Make sure your bedroom is dark – use curtains or a sleep mask if needed – and a comfortable temperature. Use your bed essentially only for sleep, sleep-related activities (winding down, etc.), and sex. Remove electronics (TVs, phones, computers) from the bedroom and avoid staring at screens for around 30 minutes prior to going to bed. Try reading a book or talking with your partner at the end of the day instead of scrolling Instagram. Stop drinking caffeine 8 hours before bedtime, avoid eating a few hours before bed, and avoid alcohol – it may make you feel sleepy, but it actually interferes with natural sleep rhythm. Feel free to use melatonin if needed, 3-6mg should be enough. Finally, try to exercise during the day: regular exercise is strongly linked to better sleep. If you’re doing all of this consistently and you still can’t sleep, talk to your doctor. Sometimes we need a little help from medications to help us sleep and your doc can advise you on non-habit forming options that will help.