How to Leverage Sleep for Longevity

Everyone sleeps. It’s a basic need, like food, water, and movement, all of which are essential to life, health, and well-being. During sleep, your body focuses on recovery and repair, which requires a distinct metabolic state that is different from waking hours. 

Unfortunately not everyone gets enough consistent, good-quality sleep. Impaired sleep, which dramatically increases chronic disease risk, impacts up to 40% of the general population — but there is something you can do about it. Just like you can refine your habits around other life essentials, you can set yourself up to get the quantity and quality of sleep you need to enhance both your healthspan and lifespan.

A Brief Sleep Primer

Sleep has a typical architecture, which is to say we all follow a pattern when we sleep. Throughout the night, we transition between two primary sleep states: non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Although these types of sleep are primarily classified based upon how your eyes move, they also differ in terms of electrical activity within your brain and your metabolic rate. During NREM sleep, your metabolic rate is lower, and specific neurochemicals like serotonin are elevated, whereas REM sleep is associated with spikes in acetylcholine. During REM sleep you are much more likely to dream, which is why REM sleep was once referred to as “dream sleep.”

Many research studies suggest that as you age, you sleep less and your sleep architecture shifts. Interestingly, in utero, mammals spend 50-80% of their day in REM sleep. That’s 12-19 hours a day! By adulthood, healthy sleep cycles last 80-120 minutes and are about 75% NREM and 25% REM sleep. 

Good Sleep Is a Longevity Multiplier 

We know that the best strategy to maximize our lifespan is to prevent or delay chronic disease. We also know that sleep is a necessity of life that is inextricably linked to metabolism and chronic disease. Therefore, prioritizing good sleep can set you up for a longer, healthier life, by protecting you from disease and positively influencing your metabolic well-being.

Here are five habits you can adopt to optimize sleep and improve longevity:

  1. Get enough sleep. According to the CDC, over one third of Amerians get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. Consistent shortened sleep duration contributes to molecular, immune, and neural changes that play a role in disease. Therefore, the first step in addressing sleep is to set up your routine so you get 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.
  1. Break sleep inertia early. For most people, sleep inertia, or grogginess immediately after waking, lasts 15-60 minutes. Whether or not you struggle with sleep inertia, adopting specific habits like viewing sunlight and prioritizing movement within the first hour of waking can help set your body’s circadian clock to get better sleep and reap sleep’s longevity benefits.
  1. If you nap, nap early. Naps certainly have a time and place: They can improve learning and memory consolidation through special brain waves called sleep spindles. However, naps too close to bedtime are bad for nighttime sleep. Researchers have found napping in the late afternoon or early evening can increase the time it takes to fall asleep after you turn out the lights by 30 minutes. Late-day naps can also double the duration of wake time at night, which interrupts sleep cycle phases and ultimately reduces sleep quality.
  1. Avoid consuming calories (including alcohol!) 2–4 hours before bed. Research shows meals, snacks, and alcohol disrupt sleep. Furthermore, eating meals and drinking alcohol after sunset, and especially close to bedtime, can sabotage your body’s opportunity to prioritize fat metabolism, which is a critical component of metabolic health. Thus, timing your meals to finish 2–4 hours before bed can help improve both your sleep and your metabolism.
  1. Maintain good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the behaviors and environmental factors that science shows are related to getting good-quality sleep. Examples include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, limiting light exposure, minimizing noise, and embracing mindfulness techniques, such as yoga nidra, prior to bedtime. Good sleep hygiene habits also include behaviors like avoiding caffeine up to 10 hours before bedtime and making sure any evening exercise happens at least 4 hours before bed.

Like it or not, we spend nearly a third of our lives sleeping. By ensuring that your sleep is sufficient and high-quality, you give yourself the opportunity to have more waking hours over a lifetime and to enjoy better health during every one of them.

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