Studies Show Sleep is a Biological Necessity But How Many Hours Do You Actually Need?
If you're the type who's constantly bragging about how little sleep you need, it may be time to rethink your views on getting more shuteye. A new report from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that sleep is "a biological necessity," and lack of sleep and untreated sleep disorders are detrimental to your health and long-term well-being, your ability to lose weight and keep it off – as well as a matter of public safety.
Sleep deprivation is linked to cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases and a lack of sleep increases your chances of accidents. Maybe this is not what you want to hear if you're reading this on your phone at 3 a.m., but even if you're chronically unable to fall asleep at a reasonable hour, or stay asleep for a long stretch, there's a lot you can do – so read on.
Sleep deprivation causes ill health and accidents
We know that good nutrition and exercise are vital to health, and many of us are eating a more plant-based diet and getting to the gym like clockwork. However, no less than, one-third of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, according to the CDC. This missing link could be the difference between a future of health or one defined by disease since conditions like depression, diabetes, and heart disease are all linked to how much sleep we get.
No fewer than 11 sleep experts – comprised of 10 MDs and a clinical psychologist – published the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) statement in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. They stressed that not only do we need better education in medical schools and public health settings about the importance of sleep as it impacts wellbeing but also interventions to avoid workplace accidents due to fatigue and lack of alertness.
A shocking 75 percent of high school students are sleep deprived
Concerningly, it's not only adults who suffer sleep deprivation, but our kids do as well. The survey reported that 34 percent of school children and nearly 75 percent of high school students don't get enough sleep according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine report. Improving Americans' sleep is one of the goals of Healthy People 2030, which provides 10-year, measurable public health objectives, one of which focuses on helping people get enough sleep, treating sleep disorders, and decreasing drowsy driving.
Anxiety is no friend to sleep since it's normal to lie in bed thinking about all the things that are causing you angst. Experts point to recent events such as the COVID pandemic, ongoing political unrest, global and international conflict, and financial uncertainty as having all made an impact on people's sleep, also disrupting routines for high school and college students.
However, it's possible to solve your sleeplessness with the help of diet and lifestyle changes according to research. First, calculate exactly how much sleep you need, then determine what you can do to help yourself get it.
The 5 health benefits of sleep
Adequate sleep is essential for our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute outline why we need sufficient sleep:
- Brain function: Whether you're learning math or perfecting your golf swing, you need sleep for learning, problem-solving, creativity, and decision making.
- Physical health: the body's healing and repair processes rely on sufficient sleep, for example, to repair our blood vessels and maintain our cardiovascular system
- Growth and development: Children need sleep to grow and develop properly and sleep triggers hormones that boost muscles mass and play a role in puberty and fertility
- Immune health: The body needs sleep for the immune system to function well and fight infections
- Insulin regulation: Sleep affects the hormones that control our blood sugar levels which affect energy and our risk of diabetes
How lack of sleep can negatively impact your health
According to research cited by the CDC, adults who got less than 7 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period were more likely to report 10 chronic health conditions compared to those who got enough sleep. Those health conditions are:
- Heart attack
- Coronary heart disease
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Sleep impacts weight gain and sleep deprivation can contribute to obesity
Furthermore, the survey showed that people with shorter sleep duration were more likely to be obese, physically inactive, smokers, or drinkers of excessive alcohol.
The research has found that there appears to be a link between sleep deprivation and obesity: "Individuals who regularly slept less than 7 hours per night were more likely to have higher average body mass indexes and develop obesity than those who slept more," the data review concluded. "Studies showed that experimental sleep restriction was associated with increased levels of ghrelin, salt retention, and inflammatory markers as well as decreased levels of leptin and insulin sensitivity."
What isn't clear is whether the effect is causal – does sleep deprivation cause chronic conditions, or are unhealthy people (who smoke, drink excessively, or are obese) suffer from more sleep deprivation? It is possible that people are unable to sleep because of their behaviors, excess weight, and painful conditions such as arthritis. However, other research such as the 2018 Sleep Heart Health Study showed that people with poor sleep or insomnia have a 29 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
When we're tired, we're more likely to make bad food choices or comfort eat which can lead to obesity or overweight. Not only does being overweight risk less sleep due to sleep apnea or snoring, but it also causes inflammation in the body and puts us at risk of chronic diseases.
How COVID has impacted our sleep routines
Lack of sleep has been particularly prevalent during the Covid pandemic. President of the AASM, Dr. Raman Malhotra told The Beet, "The significant stress and anxiety that has been associated with living in a pandemic has caused more difficulties with insomnia and disrupted sleep. It is also clear that patients who have been sick with COVID-19 can not only have disrupted sleep and tiredness during the infection, but some have these symptoms last long after the infection''
On the other hand, Dr. Malhotra noted that virtual learning and work during the pandemic may have been beneficial for sleep ''in some cases this virtual learning or working opportunity has allowed more time and flexibility for sleep, as some do not need to commute, and they can adjust their work hours around their sleep schedule''.
How much sleep do you need for optimal health?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults should sleep 7 or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health. They further advise that teenagers need eight to ten hours and children need between 9-14 hours depending on their age.
To calculate your personal sleep needs, The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School recommends having a 'sleep vacation' during a two-week period when you have a flexible schedule. Don't set an alarm to wake up, and pick a consistent bedtime. At first, you may sleep longer to pay off your 'sleep debt' - the amount of sleep deprivation that you've accumulated over time. Eventually, you will form a natural pattern of sleeping for the same amount of time each night - around seven to nine hours - and that's the amount of sleep you need.
How to sleep when stressed and anxious
Having a good bedtime ritual can help someone drift into slumber more easily. If you are feeling stressed or anxious before bed you can try the following:
- avoid blue light from screens or use a filter; turn off LED lights before bedtime
- take a relaxing bath with mood-enhancing essential oils such as lavender and lemon
- try a meditation or mindfulness activity
- write down your thoughts or use a journal to get issues off your mind
- try soaking in Epsom salts or just use them in a warm foot soak
- listen to a sleep story on tape
Foods and drinks that help sleep
A healthy plant-based diet can help weight management, which is important for good sleep. Dr. Malhotra told The Beet ''a healthy diet and nutrition are important for sleep – as we know being overweight or obese can put you at risk for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea'.'
In addition to avoiding maintaining a healthy weight, avoid foods with caffeine in the hours before bedtime, adds Dr. Malhotra, and skip the big meal at night. ''Food or drink containing caffeine can cause difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep if taken too close to bedtime. Some people also complain of poor-quality sleep if they eat a heavy meal before bedtime."
Adding specific foods to your diet can also help you to drift off, according to the latest research.
Eat more plant foods and a lighter dinner
Eating a more plant-based diet is beneficial for sleep according to a 2020 review study. The authors suggest that people who eat a plant-rich Mediterranean diet sleep longer, and the improvements in their weight and gut bacteria can reduce the increased cardiovascular risk that is associated with sleep deprivation.
Conversely, reaching for high-fat and high-sugar foods when you are tired leads to obesity and more risk of heart attacks.
Eat more tryptophan-rich foods
The amino acid tryptophan converts to serotonin (the 'happy' neurochemical) then melatonin (the sleep neurochemical), so serotonin is essential to both sleep and mood. However, to exert its effects, tryptophan needs to get into the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. This process becomes less efficient as we get older. Additionally, other amino acids in food compete with tryptophan, which makes it even more tricky to ensure you're getting enough.
Some people may need to eat more tryptophan-rich foods before bedtime to help them sleep. In one small study, subjects who were given two doses of tryptophan (in fortified cereals at breakfast and again at dinner) amounting to 60 milligrams of tryptophan a day experienced increased sleep time and efficiency.
"The consumption of cereals containing the higher dose in tryptophan increased sleep efficiency, actual sleep time, immobile time, and decreased total nocturnal activity, sleep fragmentation index, and sleep latency," the study found. The most interesting aspect of this study was that it was done on older adults – aged 55 and above – who had been struggling with disruptions in their sleep cycle due to age.
A healthy plant-based diet is full of tryptophan-rich foods, such as:
- leafy greens
- sunflower seeds
- pumpkin seeds
Additionally, our bodies need vitamin B6 to help convert tryptophan to melatonin, and many plant foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes are good sources of this.
Drink tart cherry juice
Montmorency tart cherry juice can help increase the duration and quality of sleep according to studies. Tart cherries contain natural plant melatonin known as phyto-melatonin which can help restore disrupted circadian rhythms. A small clinical trial showed that tart cherry juice caused an 84-minute increase in sleep time measured by polysomnography.
Yet another study found that tart cherry could be used as a treatment for insomnia, which affects the elderly. The study, on a small number of subjects, found; 'Tart cherry juice has been reported to have a positive effect on insomnia in elderly people as measured by the Insomnia Severity Index. The biggest effect seen was on the 'waking after sleep onset' subscale."
Eat plenty of magnesium-rich foods for better sleep
Magnesium is a mineral that plays a key role in the nervous system and can help someone to relax and sleep better. A plant-based diet includes plenty of good magnesium sources, such as:
- leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and collard greens
- nuts, seeds, and nut butters
- beans, pulses, and legumes
- whole grains
- wheat germ
- wheat and oat bran
Try herbal teas before sleep to help you drift off
While avoiding caffeine before bedtime, someone can try herbal tea instead. Good options are lemon balm, chamomile, and valerian. However, someone must check with their doctor if they have a health condition or are on medication before trying herbal remedies or teas.
Read this article next to find out more foods to help you stress less.
Bottom Line: Sleep is as important to our health and wellbeing as diet and exercise.
To be your all-around healthiest now and in the future, do whatever you can to get 7 or more hours a night. Try consuming foods and drinks that promote sleep and adopting a relaxing ritual before bedtime.
Want to sleep better and longer at night? Read more on the 5 key nutrients you should eat before bed.