Sleep is a curious thing: a daily hibernation that we need from the time we’re born. If you’re thirty years old, you’ve spent up to a decade of your life sleeping. And if you’re sixty years old, you’ve spent about twenty years of your life asleep—that’s Rip Van Winkle territory.

Sleep is essential to our well-being—and yet we don’t exactly know why. Some experts theorize that it helps to recharge and restore our brains, while others claim it’s a time for our brains to clear out toxins, to conserve energy, or to consolidate memories.

The problem? We know that sleep is important, but we don’t always get enough of it. It’s estimated that, in the mid-1900s, the average night of sleep was eight hours. Today, it’s around 6.5 hours. Many attribute it to twenty-first-century living—more hours working, more responsibilities, and more technology to keep us awake—leading to interruptions to our natural sleep cycle.

Fortunately, by understanding common causes and effects of sleeplessness, you can take steps to sleep better—and dramatically improve your health.

The Dangers of Sleeplessness

The effects of not sleeping enough can be minor or major. Being tired can affect your mood, of course, but also your thinking ability and reflexes, which can impact your ability to do work effectively and function in everyday life.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) estimates that around 40 percent of adults fall asleep during the day (without meaning to) at least once a month. This can result in minor injuries, but it can also be deadly if you’re behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, police report over 100,000 drowsy-driving vehicle accidents each year, with estimates of over 1,500 deaths annually. The National Safety Council also says that twenty hours of sleeplessness has the same effect as a blood-alcohol level of .08.

Not sleeping enough can have a lasting impact on your health as well. According to the NHLBI, sleep deficiency is associated with long-term health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and depression.

A Sleepless Society

Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep is relatively common; we all experience trouble sleeping now and again. But when it becomes prolonged, it’s problematic and even debilitating. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30 to 35 percent of Americans report insomnia: while 15 to 20 percent have it for the short term (less than three months), 10 percent experience it chronically, defined as at least three times per week for at least three months. The NHLBI says the problem is even worse, estimating that 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders.

If you experience long-term sleep disorders, talk to your doctor. There are certain medications available for treating the condition, as well as other options such as therapy.

The Seriousness of Snoring

About 90 million Americans snore, so the odds are you’ve lived with someone who snores—or you are that person. In addition to being a nuisance to bedmates, snoring can be a sign of serious health issues. Over 20 million people are estimated to suffer from some form of obstructive sleep apnea, which not only often results in snoring but also causes your airway to close and your breathing to be affected or even stop. If sleep apnea goes untreated, the long-term effects can include an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and even early death.

If you feel like you may have sleep apnea, see your doctor about being tested. Wearing a CPAP device at night can help ease this problem. In addition, your dentist can fit you with an oral apparatus, such as a night guard, to help with the condition.

A Tough Grind

Your dentist can also assist you with another common sleep problem. An estimated 8 percent of adults experience teeth grinding, or bruxism, with even higher estimates for children. If teeth grinding becomes chronic, teeth can get damaged, loosen, or even become critically injured. So be sure to talk to your dentist if you awake with symptoms such as flattened or fractured teeth or jaw pain.

Rest Assured

The benefits of getting sleep are many, and it all starts with your mind. With adequate sleep, you’ll be able to learn better, retain information, and make better decisions. In addition, a well-rested brain produces more positive emotions.

Good sleep will help your body perform at tip-top efficiency as well. For example, there’s a direct association between sleep and the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which regulate satiety. So the more you sleep, the less hungry you’ll be, which has a positive effect on your weight. Your immune system is also at peak efficiency when you sleep, which maximizes your body’s efforts to ward off illness.

How to Have Sleep Success

We often make sure we eat and drink adequately, but don’t seem to be as concerned with sleep. The first step to creating a healthier and happier life is to acknowledge that sleep goes hand in hand with health.

Of course, if you want to sleep but can’t, that’s another story. If sleeplessness is drastically impacting your life, be sure to see your doctor. However, if you’re experiencing minor sleep issues, developing healthy sleep habits is key. Here are seven steps that can help you get enough shut-eye.

• Root for routine. Setting the same wake and sleep times seven days a week will help fix your body’s sleep clock.
• Keep the bed in bedroom. It’s not your office, so use it only for what it’s intended for.
• Free your mind—and the rest will follow. Stop thinking about any mind-occupying issues a few hours before sleep.

• Cool it! Keeping your bedroom temperature within a few degrees of 70 makes for a more restful sleep environment.
• Eat, drink, and be weary. Avoid food and drinks (including alcohol) a few hours before going to bed, and forgo vigorous exercise even sooner.
• (Don’t) see the light. The blue light from devices can affect sleep, so put down the gadgets. Also, use dim lights in the bedroom, which creates melatonin and, thus, sleepiness.
• Block the clock and neutralize the noise. Use a fan for calming (and buffering) white noise, and make the clock difficult to see to prevent stress.

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