The health benefits of getting a good night’s sleep

Want to learn how you can help yourself (or even your spouse) prevent snoring? Click here for advice that will squelch snoring and get a better night’s rest.

ONE OF THE BEST THINGS you can do for your body tonight is put down your iPhone, turn off the computer, and go to bed before the 10 o’clock news.

A good night’s sleep—seven to nine hours of uninterrupted slumber—can help you ward off colds and even heart disease, improve concentration and mood, keep you from putting on pounds, and make you look younger. But 63 percent of adult Americans say they sleep fewer than seven hours a night, and 15 percent report getting less than six hours on weeknights, according to the 2011 Sleep in America Poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.

Researchers claim it’s not only our busy lives that are keeping us up but also our electronic distractions. Exposure to light-emitting screens such as TVs, laptops, and smartphones within the pivotal hours before sleep makes it more difficult to fall asleep, says Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Why Sleep Is Important
Sleep is restorative for the brain and body. Like exercise and nutrition, it is essential for good physical and mental health, says Dr. Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. If it’s cut short, the body doesn’t complete all the phases of sleep needed for tissue repair, memory consolidation, and the release of needed hormones.

People who sleep fewer than six hours a night or more than nine hours report a lower quality of life and are more likely to suffer from depression, according to a study at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center in Ohio.

Short sleep duration is also associated with diabetes and heart problems, increased risk of motor-vehicle accidents, and lower productivity at work. Not sleeping long enough may even make you fat, according to a Case Western Reserve University study involving 68,000 women for 16 years. Women who slept five hours or less a night were found to weigh 5.4 pounds more and were 15 percent more likely to become obese than women who slept seven hours per night.

Other studies have found that people who get inadequate sleep have lower levels of the hormone leptin, which suppresses appetite.

Get a Great Night’s Sleep
Good sleep doesn’t just happen. It takes preparation. Here’s a plan that beats counting sheep:

Prepare your bat cave. Think of your bedroom as a cave, say sleep doctors from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. That is, make it dark, cool, and quiet.

Avoid caffeinated beverages and chocolate. Caffeine can stay in your system for as many as eight hours, so avoid coffee, tea, and caffeinated colas after 2 p.m.

Exercise outdoors. Fresh air will help you fall asleep quicker at night. But exercising for 30 minutes or longer within four hours of your bedtime may keep you up by elevating your body temperature.

Establish a routine. Sleep experts recommend going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Give yourself time to unwind before getting into bed.

Eat light in the evening. Big meals, heavy snacks, and alcohol near bedtime will make it difficult to fall asleep. But a small snack—200 calories or less—may help.

Run the hot water. A study in Sleep, the journal of the American Sleep Disorders Association, suggests taking a hot bath about 90 minutes before bedtime. The bath raises body temperature; cool air lowers your skin temperature, triggering your body to produce melatonin, which makes you drowsy.

Feet cold? Wear socks to bed. Chilly toes may interfere with sleep, while warm feet cause blood vessels to dilate so your body can transfer heat more easily.

Make a to-do list. To clear your head, keep a notepad and pen on your nightstand and write down thoughts that keep you awake. You can deal with them tomorrow.

Jeff Csatari, the author of Your Best Body at 40+ ( is a contributing editor for Men’s Health.

Snore No More?

If your spouse snores like a top-fuel dragster, grab a couple of bricks and a tennis ball and try these classic home remedies to turn down the volume:

Tennis, Anyone? Most people snore when they sleep on their backs because the back of the throat collapses. Prevent that from happening by cutting a shirt pocket from an old T-shirt and sewing it in the middle of the back of another T-shirt or pajama top. Insert tennis ball in pocket. The ball in the back causes enough discomfort to make the wearer roll over onto their side while still asleep.

Thick as a Brick. Another way to keep the airway from collapsing is to prop up the snorer’s head with an extra pillow. But since extra pillows sometimes end up on the floor, you can try raising the head of the bed by putting a brick or two under the legs of one end.

Heavy snoring can also be self-checked. If you find yourself waking abruptly during the night, or find that you are excessively tired, you may be experiencing disruptions in your sleep due to snoring. Trying either of the above tips may help alleviate the problem.

Chronic snoring, though, could be a sign of a common but serious sleep disorder called sleep apnea. Apnea, a Greek word meaning “without breath,” accurately describes what’s happening to its sufferers. The snorer actually stops breathing involuntarily while asleep due to a blockage or collapse of the airway. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, often occurs in people who are overweight.

The breathing pauses can last seconds to minutes and may happen dozens of times a night or more leading to excessive daytime sleepiness. If you notice your spouse snorting or choking in the night, check to see if you can observe the breathing stoppage. That’s a signal that you should investigate sleep apnea with your doctor or a sleep disorders center. According to the National Institutes of Health, untreated sleep apnea increases a person’s risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart arrhythmias, and work-related and driving accidents.