The way you feel while you are awake depends in part on how well you sleep! Sleep is necessary for our bodies to work at their best. Sleep is needed by the nervous system to work properly. Sleep gives the neurons we used when we were awake a chance to shut down and repair themselves. Without enough sleep, these cells can become extremely polluted with the by-products of normal activity, or lose all their energy and begin to malfunction. Sleep also gives the brain a chance to exercise brain connections that are not usually active, keeping them from deteriorating. Without proper sleep, there is impaired memory and physical performance, and an inability to concentrate properly. If a person is very sleep deprived, they may develop hallucinations and severe mood swings. While we sleep, our heart and blood vessels heal and repair themselves. Without proper sleep, there is an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, kidney disease and diabetes.

People who are sleep deprived may find it difficult to lose weight. Good quality sleep keeps a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel much hungrier when you are sleep deprived than when you’re well-rested. Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency causes a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.

Deep sleep allows the release of growth hormone, so children and teens need a lot more good quality sleep in order to grow properly. Good quality sleep is also important for puberty and fertility. Sleep also allows cells to increase production, boosts muscle mass and repairs cells and tissues in the body. Sleep boosts your immune system to defend your body against foreign or harmful substances. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which your immune system responds.

Getting the right amount of sleep is vital, but just as important is the quality of your sleep. Biological conditions unique to women, like the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause, can affect how well a woman sleeps. This is because the changing levels of hormones that a woman experiences throughout the month and over her lifetime, like estrogen and progesterone, have an impact on sleep. Understanding the effects of these hormones, environmental factors and lifestyle habits can help women enjoy a good night’s sleep.

Women sleep differently than men. They can take longer to fall asleep, tend to be more sleep deprived, are at increased risk for insomnia, and often report different symptoms than men. Female hormones (estrogen and progesterone) directly affect the body during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause. Fluctuating levels of these hormones can cause a number of sleep-related issues, from insomnia to extreme sleepiness. Psychosocial issues can also have a direct impact on a woman’s ability to sleep (depression, stress and physical pain).

Strategies to help you sleep better

You can take steps to improve your sleep habits. First, make sure that you allow yourself enough time to sleep. With enough sleep each night, you may find that you’re happier and more productive during the day. Most women need about 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep to feel their best. Some women need more—closer to 9 hours. Others may do fine with 6 hours. Ensure that you get the amount of sleep you need.

Sleep is often the first thing that busy people squeeze out of their schedules. Making time to sleep will help you protect your health and well-being now and in the future. To improve your sleep habits, it also may help to:

● Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. For children, have a set bedtime and a bedtime routine. Don’t use the child’s bedroom for timeouts or punishment.

● Try to keep the same sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends. Limit the difference to no more than about an hour. Staying up late and sleeping in late on weekends can disrupt your body clock’s sleep–wake rhythm.

● Use the hour before bed as quiet time. Avoid strenuous exercise and bright artificial lights, like those from a TV or computer screen. The blue light that electronics emit may signal the brain that it’s time to be awake.

● Avoid heavy and/or large meals within a couple hours of bedtime. (Having a light snack is okay.)

● Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Wine may make you sleepy, but it doesn’t keep you asleep.

● Avoid nicotine (for example, cigarettes) and caffeine (including caffeinated soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate). Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants, and both substances can interfere with sleep. The effects of caffeine can last as long as 8 hours. A cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night.

● Spend time outside every day (when possible), and be physically active.

● Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark (a dim nightlight is fine, if needed).

● Take a hot bath or use relaxation techniques before bed.

Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.

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Tobi Ash RN, BSN, MBA, is completing her PhD. For more than 25 years, Tobi has been teaching, mentoring, researching and helping women and girls with their healthcare issues with competent, compassionate care.