While scientists remain baffled as to why, exactly, humans need to sleep, the overall benefits of getting regular rest are clear.
Sleep helps with learning and memory. It reduces the risk of obesity, depression, and seven of the top fifteen causes of death among Americans, including cardiovascular disease and accidents. And when it comes to our careers, sufficient sleep is directly correlated with better cognitive performance and greater productivity.
But, according to the Centers of Disease Control, as many as one-third of Americans don't get enough sleep on a regular basis--and this number is rising. Researchers blame the trend on our modern lifestyles, which often consist of minimal physical activity and excessive screen time.
So, how do we counterbalance those effects to help our bodies fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and sleep more soundly? Here are some simple activities you could incorporate into your busy days to help improve your rest.
1. Have a pleasant chat with your significant other.
Just one enjoyable conversation with your significant other before bedtime has been shown to promote better rest. Even ten minutes spent checking in with each other, sharing good news or positive memories, or discussing a topic that interests you both can help you fall asleep faster and have improved sleep.
2. Take a walk.
Studies have found that moderate aerobic exercise in the afternoon or later can help improve sleep, even for those with chronic insomnia. Exercise helps to reduce anxiety and depression, which can hamper sleep. Some theorize that the increased body temperature caused by exercise, and then the post-exercise decrease in body temperature, can help with falling asleep.
However, it should be noted that lifting weights and vigorous aerobic activity, such as running, have not been linked to better sleep.
3. Eat a sleep-promoting snack.
Consuming the right snack before bedtime can give your body a sleep-inducing boost. Walnuts, almonds, and cherry juice contain melatonin, a natural hormone that regulates our sleep. Other foods like dairy, fatty fish, and turkey encourage your body to produce more melatonin or serotonin to aid your sleep. And chamomile tea or passionflower tea are always good options for their ability to reduce stress.
Scientists advise staying away from anything with caffeine, including decaffeinated coffee, as well as alcohol before going to bed, as both have been shown to disrupt sleep rhythms.
4. Read a book.
One study found that reading for only six minutes before bedtime can help improve sleep. As an immersive activity, reading gets your mind off of any concerns or activities that might cause you stress, helping your mind and body to relax.
The one thing to be cautious of is reading on a screen, as the light from the device will overly stimulate you. Far better is to read from an unlit e-reader or an actual book.
5. Have a bedtime routine.
We all know babies benefit from bedtime routines. Apparently, so do adults. Following a simple routine each evening before bedtime--even if it only includes laying out your pajamas and brushing your teeth--will signal to your body and brain that it's time to sleep and help you find your Zs sooner.