When it comes to keeping good health habits, many of us make a concerted effort to eat salads and whole grain cereal, go on power walks with friends, maybe even try a yoga class. But how many of us make sleep a top health priority?
My friends—mostly working moms like myself—complain about how little sleep they get, almost turning it into a competition. There's the teacher who's answering E-mails from parents at 1 a.m., and the lawyer who cooks five-course meals for company into the wee hours on Thursday nights. And, yes, last night I can brag that I was up until midnight addressing invitations to my son's birthday party.
I wonder, though, if women would so easily shirk off sleep if we considered how important it is for our health. A new Duke University study underscores the health consequences of poor sleep habits, noting that women suffer far more than men. For example, sleeping fitfully was associated with greater body weight in women but not in men. And if it takes a woman longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night, she's at particular risk. "We found these women had a worse cardiovascular and metabolic risk profile, meaning they had risks for heart disease and type 2 diabetes that were pretty significant," study leader Edward Suarez tells me. For example, about 35 percent of them had high levels of an inflammation marker in their blood that's linked to both heart disease and diabetes, compared with 21 percent of the men who had similar trouble falling asleep. Other studies suggest that high testosterone levels are common in men who are poor sleepers, and Suarez says this could protect them against abdominal fat and inflammation, thus helping to explain the gender difference.
If I've persuaded you to put sleep at the top of your to-do list, here are three steps to getting better rest:
1. Run like a German train. Put yourself on a regular schedule, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. This will cause your body to release melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy) at a consistent time every night—helping you fall asleep more easily. As melatonin researcher Mark Rea told me when I recently interviewed him about the health effects of light at night, "a healthy life is a boring life." OK, so maybe allow yourself one late night a week to get things done or take in a midnight movie but no more than that.
2. Cut back on sleep killers, like the Diet Coke, Starbucks, Red Bull, or other caffeine pick-me-ups that you think you need because you're feeling exhausted. You'll be even more tired at first, but the deeper sleep you get will pay you back in full. You can still have that morning coffee, but go cold turkey after 2 p.m. Also avoid alcohol and heavy meals right before bed. They might make you drowsy but may cause you to sleep fitfully rather than more deeply and restfully.
3. Create a pre-sleep ritual. Ideally, nights should be as relaxing as possible, but try telling this to a working mom who needs to get a million things done. If your mind is sometimes still racing once you get into bed, you might want to set aside a few minutes to wind down. Before turning out the lights, read a few pages of a book, listen to some music, or just focus on your breathing. If you still find yourself wide awake in the dark, try setting aside a 15-minute "worry time" while commuting to work or after dinner. And if that doesn't work, remind yourself that you've entered the sleep zone; it's much like the treadmill in terms of the health benefits you'll reap, except far more enjoyable.