By Christine Schulz on Mon, Oct 18, 2021
There's a good chance you're not getting enough sleep.
Adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep, but most Amercians are only getting between six and seven. As a result, nearly half of us report feeling sleepy throughout the day for half to all of the week.
There are many reasons why we can't sleep well, from cellphones to stress to medical conditions. The good news is that many of the causes of bad sleep are treatable, but they often require lifestyle changes (and persistence).
In this post, we'll look at the common culprits behind a poor night's sleep, the side effects of poor sleep, and tips for cultivating more restful nights.
What Causes Sleeping Disturbances—And The Consequences of Poor Sleep
What causes bad sleep? Medical issues are the root cause of many sleep problems. Sleep Apnea—a treatable condition that the Total Brain app screens for—affects 1 in 15 adults in the U.S., with nearly 80% going undiagnosed. Those who are overweight or over 50 years old have a higher risk of Sleep Apnea, which causes the larynx (the opening to the windpipe) to repeatedly close during sleep. This cuts off oxygen for brief periods of time, resulting in daytime fatigue.
The most common sleep disorder is Insomnia, defined as difficulty in falling and staying asleep. It is usually treatable, and affects 30% of the adult U.S. population. Chronic insomnia can lead to depression, decreased job performance, decreased quality of life, and other health-related problems.
But just as prevalent as Insomnia is stress, which keeps one-third of us up at night. (And based on data from our Mental Health Index, we're willing to wager that that number has jumped dramatically.) Poor sleep and anxiety (as well as Depression) are often connected; 75% of people who have Depression reported trouble falling asleep, and that rate is about the same for anxiety-related sleep problems.
Regardless of the cause, getting insufficient shut eye can have significant short- and long-term consequences.
Sleep has a huge impact on brain function, including capacities like memory. Sleep and cognitive function are intertwined; college students who get sufficient rest perform better academically than their sleepless peers. Sleep disruption detracts from several brain capacities, including emotional reactivity, memory formation, judgement, decision-making and other executive functions.
In the short term, a 2019 study showed that a bad night's sleep can have immediate effects: sleep-deprived participants doubled their pre-insomnia error rate the morning after a sleepless night. They also struggled 300% more with paying attention. Another study found poor sleep resulted in a heightened response to stress, depression, and bodily pain. In older adults, just one night of sleep deprivation can activate genes related to aging. After two nights, we have heightened sensitivity to pain.
Based on research, the long-term effects of poor sleep in otherwise healthy people included an elevated risk for diseases like hypertension, weight gain, and Type 2 Diabetes. There is some evidence that chronic sleep disruption can lead to risk of certain cancers in males, and suicidal ideations in adolescents. Long-term sleep problems may even worsen the symptoms of GI-related disorders.
It's important to know that getting a good night's sleep isn't just about logging enough hours — it's also about getting enough hours of undisturbed, deep sleep. If you're in bed for nine hours but you have poor sleeping patterns, you aren't really getting a full night's rest.
Here's the catch-22: those who suffer from Anxiety, stress, and Depression are more likely to have trouble sleeping well. And that lack of sleep, in turn, can exacerbate their conditions (and raise the risk of developing these conditions in people who don't have them). We know that people who experience a chronic lack of sleep are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
All of this evidence makes the case for getting sleep issues under control sooner rather than later.
Tips for Getting a Good Night's Sleep
If you think you may have an underlying medical condition causing you to lose sleep, visit your doctor. If your sleepless nights are a result of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts, there are things you can try today that can make a difference.
Primarily, target your thinking patterns and stress management—and not just before bedtime. In the throes of stressful days, it's easy to let our thoughts run away from us, but weaker management of unhelpful thinking patterns in the daytime can amplify the stress that leads to sleeplessness at night.
One of the best ways to get a good night's sleep and avoid stress-induced insomnia is to start reigning in negative thoughts. Do this by using Total Brain's brain training exercises for ten to twenty minutes a day. Pick a time when you can work on changing thought patterns — either upon first waking (to set the tone for the day), or during a lunch break, when you're sandwiched (pun intended) between stressful to-dos. Over weeks of consistent training, you'll likely notice fewer negative thoughts when trying to sleep, and consequently, a reduced impact of stress on sleep.
Start your morning with a Gratitude Meditation from Total Brain's meditation library, and spend ten minutes playing brain training games like Bubbletopia, Wordsmith, and Happy Seeker later in the day. These games train your brain to seek out positive thoughts and give less mental space to the negative ones. Bubbletopia, for example, selectively orients players' attention to positive emotion words, requiring them to rapidly select those words to move to higher levels. Doing this repeatedly trains the brain's ability to control mood and nudge oneself into a positive mindset when needed. Attending to positive emotion words has been shown to enhance the activation of brain networks for happiness, safety and reward
Another way to train your brain for better sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime and waking time, which can prevent a disturbed circadian rhythm. Start getting ready for bed and turning off the light at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time each morning. Consistency trains our brains to prepare for sleep by regulating blood pressure and enabling a balanced release of cortisol and melatonin (which also increases optimal learning and memory capabilities).
As part of your consistent bedtime, develop a nighttime ritual that removes stimulation (especially blue light from cell phones and television) and helps you de-stress before bed. Try Total Brain's library of NeuroTunes which offers scientifically composed ambient music that induces calm. Another element of an effective evening ritual is meditation, which will help you be more present by focusing on your breathing in order to quiet your mind. In addition to a selection of meditations on the Total Brain app, you can also tap into our guided breathing exercises like resonant breathing, which can lower stress in minutes. Slow breath training at six breaths per minute has been shown to improve sleep quality by reducing sympathetic nervous system activity.
In keeping with how daytime thinking and actions can affect your ability to fall (and stay) asleep at night, remember to take care of your body. Avoid alcohol and tobacco, and limit caffeine intake to the beginning of the day (which includes chocolate). For many, cutting out that second cup of coffee and other sleep-killers can be a challenge — but Total Brain's tools can also help with beating cravings.
Changes to diet should be paired with vigorous exercise, which improves sleep in two ways: it changes your brain chemistry by increasing the supply of anti-anxiety neurochemicals, and it has shown to increase the amount of slow wave sleep you get.
Total Brain works with corporate clients to create “30 day training challenges” that help employees improve sleep habits and wire their brains to be better stress managers — and you can do this, too. Download the Total Brain app to your iPhone or Android and take our 15-minute assessment. The results are used to generate a personalized brain training plan that can help you master stress and sleep better.