In 1942, gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon, people knew their neighbors, and Americans got more sleep than they do today. According to a Gallup poll, 40% of Americans get less than the recommended seven hours sleep. On average, we sleep 6.8 hours, down more than hour from 1942.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults receive between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. The foundation “developed age-specific recommended sleep durations based on a rigorous, systematic review of the [world’s] scientific literature relating sleep duration to health, performance and safety,” said Charles A. Czeisler, PhD, MD, chairman of the board of the National Sleep Foundation, chief of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Currently only 59% of American adults meet the sleep standards, while in 1942, 84% did.
Studies have shown that a regular lack of sleep results in cognitive impairment and health problems, including:
- Weakened immunity
- Risk of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Risk of diabetes
- Mood changes
- Concentration difficulties
What Is Cortisol?
People today aren’t purposefully getting less sleep than they did seventy-five years ago, but rather they are experiencing sleep disturbances and difficulty falling and staying asleep. So, what changed?
It’s highly likely that the hormone cortisol may play a major role in our country’s sleep issues. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is secreted when the body goes into the fight or flight response during times of stress or fear. Society today remains in a state of constant stress, with worries over money, job success, family, and so on.
This constant stress translates into continuous elevated cortisol levels. In addition to keeping us up at night, it can cause premature aging and an early death, making the hormone known as the “death hormone.” Cortisol also suppresses DHEA, which is known as the “youth hormone.” In addition, it:
- Elevates blood sugar levels, which can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer
- Lowers immunity
- Leads to poor short-term memory
- Loss of muscle tone
- Weight gain, particularlly in the abdomen
Reduce Stress to Lower Cortisol and Improve Sleep
Tip 1: Make an effort to be happier
Make a conscious effort to grow happier. There are numerous ways to acheive this. Spend time with your significant other, your children, or your friends. Go bowling or putt-putting. Start a hobby. Be creative – paint, draw, or write. Plant a garden or visit a museum. Go to church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious center. Begin a home improvement project. Sing. Dance. Do.
Far too often, we become bored in our lives because we become stale in our activities. We come home from work, sit on the couch, and watch a series of television shows, then go to bed, repeating ad naseum.
If we get up and get out and do, we will improve our wellbeing and our emotional health.
Tip 2: Prepare yourself for bed
Before bed, you can do a few things to ease into sleep, reducing stress and lowering cortisol levels:
- Shut off the television. For at least an hour before bed, avoid watching TV for a better night’s sleep.
- Dim the lights. The lower lights will help your body secrete the melatonin needed to help you sleep.
- Take a hot bath. Use bubble bath, Epsom salts, or essential oils to help you relax.
- Listen to relaxing music, such as classical movements or jazz.
- Make a list of everything for which you are thankful.
Tip 3: Change your diet.
Be sure to eat high-quality proteins, which lower cortisol levels.Try consuming grain-like seeds such as Quinoa, Millet, or Buckwheat, which are vegetarian, gluten-free, and protein-rich and are believed to have a calming effect on the body. Include good-quality, unrefined fats in your diet, especially those high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which lower cortisol.
With some simple changes in your lifestyle habits and the right types of foods, you can lower your cortisol levels, feel happier, and sleep deeper.