Simple fitness that works, from pregnancy to seasoned athlete.

Prioritize Sleep for Your Health

Woman sleeping

So you slept like the Princess and the Pea last night, and now you’re heading into another work meeting, or day at home, praying you’ll stay awake. Once you’ve made it through the day (painfully) it comes time to snuggle into bed, but sleep is not happening. Before too long you start playing math games with yourself. “If I fall asleep now, I’ll get 5 hours of sleep … OK if I fall asleep now, I’ll get 4 hours and 55 minutes of sleep …”

What gives?

If this is familiar to you, then there are some simple strategies you can use to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Make Smart Decisions During the Day

A big part of how you sleep has nothing to do with night. What you do during the day and the hours leading up to bedtime will trump any final ditch effort you make to snooze when the time comes.

  • Go light at night. Eating a big meal before bed, especially one high in carbs or fat can impair your ability to fall asleep. Carbs may give you a jolt of energy, while fat will likely give you heartburn.
  • Skip the nightcap. A glass of wine may sound relaxing, but alcohol actually keeps you from getting a good night’s sleep. You may fall asleep easier, but you’ll probably find yourself tossing and turning throughout the night.
  • Avoid the overdoing the caffeine drinks. You may need a cup or so of coffee to make it through the day but consider your timing and the amount you drink. You’ll be surprised to know that caffeine could still be coursing through your system 12 hours later!
  • Break a sweat. As little as 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day means better sleep at night. Time of day doesn’t really matter.

Create (and Stick to) a Sleep Routine

A regular routine is huge when it comes to bedtime. Chances are you know these things but just neglect to actually do them.

  • Regular bedtime. Same place. Same time. Every night.
  • Wake up at the same time every day. You read the tip above? Repeat here.
  • Make like a toddler and nap. If you need to nap, be smart about it — early afternoon, 30 minutes max.

Melatonin Matters

Getting scientific here. Your body makes a hormone called melatonin that plays a huge role in your sleep-wake cycles. Even though it is naturally made in the body there’s a catch — it’s controlled by light. Crazy, huh? So when you are in a lighted room or in the sun your body produces less of this hormone, keeping you awake. Therefore, if you are exposing yourself to a lot of light in the evening, you may be disrupting your body’s ability to slow down, relax, and fall asleep.

  • See the light. During the day make an effort to take in some natural light. It can be tough in the winter or if you are stuck inside all day but just 10 minutes can make a difference. Take a break outside, or even stand by a window for a while. All these things can help you sleep better at night.
  • Wind down. It’s easy to spend the entire evening glued to Netflix, but this could be keeping you awake even longer. There is also evidence that backlit devices (TVs, phones, iPad, and computers) produce enough light to keep your brain from producing melatonin.
  • Caution with supplements. The science is still new on this but be thoughtful about picking a melatonin supplement. These are not intended to be used regularly (many will note this on their label), and there is a concern that relying on a melatonin supplement can disrupt your body’s natural ability to produce the hormone. Employ the above tips first, then reach for the supplement if you really need it.

What’s the Big Deal?

Sleep Affects Your Weight

When you are sleep deprived, there are a few things that happen that make it harder to regulate what you eat. Basically when you haven’t slept you are energy deprived and you reach for saturated fats, sweets, and carbs to make up for that energy. This happens because of the increase in ghrelin (hunger hormone) and decrease in leptin (energy hormone) when you are tired, leading to “artificial hunger.” Your hormones are telling you’re hungry when your body doesn’t actually NEED the fuel.

Sleep Affects Your Mood

As you know, it’s not just the food choices but the behaviors around your food choices. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep impairs emotional control. This leads to an increase in stress hormones associated with anxiety and depression. It also heightens the risk of developing chronic conditions like coronary artery disease. What’s fascinating is that just one night of sleep deprivation can impair a person’s ability to ignore intrusive thoughts. This means you are more likely to experience unpleasant memories, worries, have a low mood, and struggle to focus on important tasks after just one night of poor sleep.

Optimal health requires a holistic approach. Looking at sleep, food, hydration, movement, and stress management can all lead to better health.


Sleep is hard to ignore because you often feel the immediate impact of not getting enough. However, if you are getting less than 7 hours of sleep on a regular basis, you are increasing your risk for some serious health complications in the future. There are many studies that show individuals who are sleep deprived (less than 7 hours of sleep) are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In the shorter-term, it can also lead to hormone imbalances, difficulty regulating your mood, and more trouble focusing and making decisions.

It’s also important to note that “good sleep” is measured in a few ways:

  • Duration of sleep: the number of hours your head is on the pillow snoozing.
  • Quality of sleep: this includes REM and slow wave sleep. The later part of this is typically measured in a sleep study; however, you are likely to know when you get better quality of sleep by how refreshed you feel in the morning.