Although the recommended amount of sleep is seven to nine hours a night, more than one-third of Americans get less than seven hours a night, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sleep is the main time we heal and regenerate,” says Elina Winnel, a sleep and insomnia coach from The Sleep Expert. “If we deprive ourselves of sleep over a prolonged period of time, our ability to think laterally, rather than just literally, reduces, [and] our stress levels elevate and our mood is affected, sometimes contributing to anxiety disorders and depression. Perhaps most importantly, our physical health suffers significantly.”
If you are one of the many people who are chronically sleep deprived, the big question is how to recover from that chronic deprivation. Although it’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, improving your sleep is achievable and can lead to a number of improvements in your mental and physical wellbeing.
“It is important for people to know that they do not have to put up with poor sleep,” Winnel said. “Even the most challenged sleepers can sleep well again.”
The long-term health consequences of sleep deprivation
Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk for a number of chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke. Not getting enough sleep can also affect your short and long-term memory, weaken your immune system, and affect your mood, and can also increase your risk of being in an accident.
“Many people invest time and energy into their diet and exercise, but pay insufficient attention to the third trifecta, [which is] sleep,” Winnel said. “[Sleep] is often the most underestimated lynchpin to optimal health and wellbeing.”
You can’t always pay back your “sleep debt”
When it comes to long-term sleep deprivation, the effects cannot be fully undone. “We can only repay a very limited amount of sleep debt, typically around ten days’ worth,” Winnel said. “After that, it simply becomes aging.” However, it’s never too late to prioritize your sleep, as doing so will have a number of beneficial effects on your health.
The good news is that when you do start getting better sleep, you’ll start feeling the effects right away. Getting enough sleep can help you get sick less often, helps with maintaining a healthy weight, lowers your risk for chronic disease, helps you think more clearly, and will improve your mood.
How to improve your sleep
That said, improving your sleep is hard, especially in a world with non-stop distractions and high stress levels. If your sleep is especially bad, or if you suspect you may have a condition like sleep apnea, it’s really important to talk with your doctor to get the necessary testing and support.
However, if your poor sleep is due to the more from stress, caffeine, or poor sleep hygiene, then it’s really important to take a good look at what factors might be the issue. “The first step is to value and prioritize sleep,” Winnel said.
Some possible strategies include trying out some of the many technological gadgets and tools aimed at improving your sleep; cultivating an evening routine that can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep; avoiding thinking about anxiety-inducing issues before bedtime; or hiring a sleep coach to help evaluate your sleep routine. If one strategy doesn’t work, then try another, until you can finally access the many benefits of good sleep.