Getting enough high-quality sleep on an ongoing basis is one of the most important things you can do for your physical and mental health. Everyone should strive to set aside eight hours a night, get a job that works with your chronotype, and live in a quiet, dark neighborhood.
Well, you’ve probably already found that it’s not always that easy. For many, it’s unrealistic to achieve this ideal due to many life factors, from trying to balance work and family to your neighbor with a passion for power tools.
But that said, there are certain situations where it’s extra important to get enough sleep and certain preventable lifestyle factors that may be preventing you from getting there.
Even if it’s unrealistic to get a solid eight hours every night, if you can make it happen for a few nights during critical times – or tweak your routine and environment to sleep a little better on an ongoing basis – you can still enjoy some of the benefits of being better rested. If you find yourself in any of the following scenarios, take extra steps to get enough shut-eye.
Fighting a cold
Not getting enough sleep makes it easier to get sick if you’ve been exposed to a virus, and it also slows your recovery if you’re already sick. When you sleep, your body produces infection-fighting antibodies, cells, and cytokines, which you need to get better. Insufficient sleep means an insufficient immune response.
When you feel yourself getting sick (or if something nasty is going around the office), make it a priority to get at least a few solid nights of sleep, even if that means canceling social obligations or workouts. And when you do have to stay home sick, avoid the temptation to spend all day and night in bed watching TV or using your laptop, since the blue light can interfere with melatonin production and impede sleep. Try reading a book or magazine instead.
When you work out, you create microtrauma in your muscles. This is actually a good thing: Your body will repair itself and become stronger in response to this stimulus.
But if you hit it hard in the gym or on the field and don’t give your body the time it needs to build back up, you’ll never build the strength you’re after, and all those micro-tears will eventually lead to a real injury that could sideline you for months.
Since the repair happens while you sleep at night, many hard-training athletes get much more sleep than others in order to feel their best.
Even if it isn’t possible for you to sleep 10+ hours a night like the pros, you can still help to avoid injuries by shooting for a little extra on the nights before or after big workouts.
For weekend warriors, this might mean skipping late-night karaoke Friday night if you have a competition or tough workout planned for Saturday morning.
If you have a stressful work or school situation, it could be interfering with your sleep quality without you realizing it: Stress prompts your brain to remain in an active state instead of switching to the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to fall asleep and relax.
And you don’t have to be a high-powered CEO to see this kind of stress. It’s common in “helping” professions where it’s your job to take care of others often at the expense of your own well-being, like social workers, nurses, and full-time parents.
In addition to enduring the sleep-stealing effects of stress, many of these caretakers suffer sleep interruptions when tending to children, patients, or clients who have needs that must be addressed at all hours of the day and night.
If you find yourself in such a position, take measures to set boundaries to protect your sleep time, whether that means turning off your email at night or sharing childcare duties with a spouse or babysitter.
Also consider exploring other self-care habits, like practicing gratitude and exercise. Since these techniques relieve stress (a benefit in itself), they can help you sleep better, which further reduces stress.
If you work nights and need to sleep during the day, sleep becomes an inherent problem because our internal clock is typically set to be awake during the day. Shift workers have been shown to struggle to get enough sleep, which can lead to many other health risks. Add a partner or family into the mix and things get even trickier.
For instance, if you work nights and the rest of your family gets up early, you may involuntarily wake when you hear your partner or children stirring, then fall back asleep when they leave the house.
Even if you don’t recall waking up, the sudden noise can still affect the quality of your sleep. It’s also likely you’re exposed to more light while trying to sleep in the morning or watching TV at night. So even if you’re in bed for a solid eight hours, not all of this is high-quality sleep.
A few simple tweaks can help shift workers sleep more deeply with fewer interruptions. Invest in blackout curtains for your bedroom; both you and your partner will sleep better, since it will block sunlight during your daytime sleeping hours as well as light pollution that may be disturbing both of you at night.
You and your partner should eliminate any unnecessary noise, light, and movement that might disturb the other’s sleep. Use a nightlight instead of a brighter lamp, read in the living room instead of in bed, and set out the next day’s outfit and other necessities in advance so there are no banging dresser drawers. You could even dress in a bathroom or guest room if you have the space.
Also, try to deviate as little as possible from your work-week sleep schedule during your days off, so you can fall asleep and wake up more easily.
The struggle to sleep enough and well can be frustrating, especially when there are obstacles that get in the way of our efforts. But pinpointing what’s tripping you up and making strategic efforts to address these factors can lead to noticeable improvements in your sleep, and, in turn, your quality of life.
Jeff is the founder and editor-in-chief at Sleep Junkies . A passionate sleep advocate, he started the site in 2012, reaching millions of readers across the globe. Jeff also runs the product curation platform SleepGadgets.io . He is often asked to speak at about current trends in consumer sleep technology at various events.