Sleep deprivation is an epidemic in our country. A recent Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans get 6 or less hours of sleep every night. Long work hours, hectic schedules and everyday stressors are causing us to sleep less and sleep poorly.

It is recommended that adults get 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Many people do not realize how important a good night’s sleep truly is. Here are some of the ways that sleep impacts our health, as well as some tips for helping to improve your nightly sleep.

How does sleep affect weight loss?

We look for a quick fix. Many people experience that 2pm crash. Your eyes begin to droop and you cannot imagine how you are going to possibly make it through the rest of your work day. So you grab an energy drink, cup of coffee or sugary snack to give you a boost of energy. These quick fixes may perk you up enough to make it to quitting time, but they can be dangerous to your body. Any foods or drinks that contain high levels of sugar, caffeine or other stimulants can cause a spike in your insulin, epinephrine and adrenaline levels.

We get lazy. When you constantly feel sluggish and groggy, your desire to go to the gym drops dramatically. The thought of driving to the gym, putting on workout clothes and struggling through an exercise routine can seem overwhelming when you are sleep-deprived.

We make unhealthy food choices. It is difficult to muster up the energy to prepare a healthful dinner when you are tired. Drive thru and take-out can seem like a great option after a long, exhausting day. Unfortunately, these foods often contain significantly more calories and fat then any meal you would cook for yourself.

Why sleep is important for your health

Sleep deprivation leads to metabolism imbalances and hormonal fluctuations. When your body is lacking sleep, it has trouble processing glucose properly. These impairments can lead to serious health issues, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They can also lead to weight gain.

When your body isn’t taking glucose into its cells in an efficient way, it triggers your brain that you are hungry. Lack of sleep can also cause a lowering of the hormone leptin. Leptin is an appetite-suppressing hormone that is usually produced by fat cells when we sleep. If our bodies are not getting enough sleep, they are often not producing enough leptin. Sleep deprivation also causes an increase in the hunger-stimulating hormone, ghrelin. In short, lack of sleep causes your body to feel hungrier.

Your immune system is also negatively affected when you do not get enough sleep. While we are sleeping our body’s immunity are re-charging and re-stocking in order to work efficiently and properly to fight of antigens and repair any damaged tissue within our bodies. When that sleep is interrupted or depleted, the immune cells are not given enough time to replenish and rejuvenate.

How can you get a better night’s sleep?

Turn off electronics before bed. The glow from your smart phone, tablet or the television tricks your brain into thinking it is light outside. Power down your devices at least an hour before you plan on going to sleep.

Hit the gym. Exercising on a regular basis helps to strengthen your circadian rhythms. These mental, physical and behavioral processes cycle every 24 hours. When you work out, you affect these rhythms in a positive way, making you more alert during the day and more able to sleep well at night. *Do not participate in strenuous exercise too close to bed time. Allow your body 3-4 hours to wind down after a difficult workout before going to bed.

Set your alarm. If you are the type of person who glances at your clock throughout the night so that you don’t oversleep, start setting your alarm. This allows you to rest deeply without having to constantly worry that you will miss your wake up time. Also, when that alarm goes off, head straight to the blinds and open them up. The daylight that fills your room lets your body know that it is time to get up and get moving.

Maintain your weekday sleep schedule on the weekends. Your body and brain get into a rhythm when you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Staying up late on the weekends and waking up much later in the day causes your body to be thrown off of its sleep rhythm. Try your best to keep your bedtime and wake up time within an hour of two of what they are during the week.

Watch your caffeine intake. For some people, a cup of coffee after dinner does not interrupt their ability to fall asleep at all. Others, however, will be staring at the ceiling half the night if they eat a few bites of chocolate in the late afternoon. If you are having trouble falling asleep and you cannot find the reason, consider keeping a food diary. Make note of any caffeinated foods that you eat or drink during the day. Eliminate them for a week and see if your sleep cycles improve.

Buy new pillows. Your neck should be at a natural curve when you are lying down. Pillows that are too fluffy or too flat can lead to neck pain and discomfort when trying to fall asleep. If you watch television in bed before you go to sleep (a no-no!), pay attention to the angle that your neck is at. Craning your neck to see the TV can also lead to a stiff neck in the morning.

Avoid alcohol. While the immediate effects of alcohol can make you sleepy, people often find that a glass of wine or two at dinner leads to them being wide awake 3-4 hours into their normal sleep cycle. The reason for this is that alcohol continues to metabolize as you sleep, and the process causes interruptions in your REM sleep. If you do indulge in a night cap from time to time, be sure to drink a large glass of water before bed to rehydrate your body.

Block out background noise. The creak of the heat turning on, an annoying faucet drip and the pounding of bass as your neighbor practices his guitar can all make it impossible to fall asleep. Consider investing in a white noise machine or similar app to cancel out unwanted sounds.