Sleep isn’t just downtime. It can be as important to productivity, happiness, and overall health as some of the things we do while we’re awake. For example, a recent study found that couples in which the partners get less sleep fight more. After a sleepless night, couples are less able to manage conflict and more prone to lash out at each other. Lack of sleep has long been associated with increased irritability in many contexts, but this is the first time hard data show that irritability can damage relationships.
Other studies have consistently found a link between lack of sleep and poor dietary choices. Lack of sleep raises the levels of a molecule that stimulates the appetite. In addition, people with later bedtimes tend to snack at night, and brain scans have found that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on the part of the brain involved in complex decision-making, while increasing activity in the area that responds to rewards, such as junk food. That combination makes junk food more tempting.
That’s why experts recommend that you:
- Stick as best you can to a daily routine; get up at the same time every morning, even when you don’t have work, and go to bed at the same time every night.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. It takes caffeine about half an hour to kick in and about 5 hours to leave the body
- Don’t wear restrictive clothing to bed.
- Turn off all electronic devices before taking off for dreamland.
- Get some exercise, which stabilizes your body clock, reduces your risk of sleep apnea, and perhaps more prosaically, burns off energy, helping you sleep.
- Use your bed—and, if possible, your bedroom—only for sleeping and intimacy
- If you can’t sleep, get up and do something, then try again later.
Stress is a common cause of brief bouts of insomnia, but if it’s a chronic problem there may be something more going on. Insomnia is a frequent symptom of clinical depression, as well as of other illnesses such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, arthritis, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease—it’s definitely something you’ll want to mention to your doctor. Certain medications, including allergy medications and corticosteroids, can have insomnia as a side effect, and your doctor can help you with that as well.