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The Ultimate Guide to Achieving Quality Sleep and How Sleep Affects Your Health and Longevity

white bed with tan pillows

I love crawling into my bed and I love to sleep! I love going to bed early, waking up late, and taking long naps. This rarely happens, but when I do, I'm in heaven. I also love how I feel when I routinely get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and the older I get, the more I've made this a priority. However, on the occasions when I am sleep deprived, I immediately feel the impact on my physical, mental and emotional health. For my body, my immune system weakens and I immediately get sores in my mouth and develop a runny nose. It's inevitable. If my sleep range is less than five hours, my heart beats like it's coming out of my chest, like I'm in fight or flight, (which I'm sure I am). It's as if my body can't release the adrenaline. As for my mental and emotional health--I experience a loss of alertness and focus, and reaction time is delayed. The best way to describe my emotional state is that of a teething toddler, making me loads of fun to be around.

Sleep is one of those things we all know is important and we need a lot of, however as a society and across all ages and demographics, we're moving in the wrong direction. According to Charles Czeisler, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and advises everyone from the Boston Red Sox to the U.S. Secret Service, he says "Today, 40% of Americans are chronically sleep deprived, getting less than 7 hours of sleep each night. The amount of sleep we get has dropped 20% in 100 years".

Per an excellent article in the New York Times, titled "On the Phone, Alone" the focus was on pediatricians who are struggling to help adolescents. The article connected SmartPhones and social media to sleep deprivation and the deterioration of mental and emotional health. The article states: "Many measures of adolescent mental health began to deteriorate sometime around 2009. It is true of the number of U.S. high-school students who say they feel persistently sad or hopeless. It’s also true of reported loneliness. And it is true of emergency room visits for self-harm among Americans ages 10 to 19. This timing is suspicious because internet use among adolescents was also starting to soar during the same period. Apple began selling the iPhone in 2007. Facebook opened itself for general use in late 2006, and one-third of Americans were using it by 2009."

OUTLIVE book cover

With sleep impacting everything, fortunately it's become a topic that is getting the attention it needs. Currently I'm reading the book, OUTLIVE, the Science and Art of Longevity by Peter Attia, MD and Bill Gifford, and in this blog post I'll share the sleep highlights, including how sleep affects our health, the connection between chronic sleep deprivation and heart disease, metabolic dysfunction, aging, our memory, Alzheimer's Disease, cognitive and emotional health and athletic performance. I'll also close with 10 simple ways to improve your sleep

colorful pictures of women working out

How Sleep Affects Your Brain, Mental and Emotional Health and Memory

According to Roxanne Prichard, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Minneapolis, sleep is an incredibly active process. When we go to sleep, all sorts of activities take place in the body and brain-all these are necessary for you to be able function and focus. One of the things that happens is your brain cleans itself of waste that has accumulated during the day. During the slow-wave sleep, your cerebral spinal fluid channels open up and remove metabolic waste from your brain. Every night, when you go to sleep, your brain is rinsed with a watery build. This cerebrospinal fluid washes through your brain, flushing out toxic proteins and carrying them town to your liver to get rid of them, also known as, brain poop. When you are sleeping you are repairing. Sleep affects our brain in the following ways:

Increased Risk of Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Sleep plays a major role in brain health, especially as we get older, no only in terms of cognitive function but also in terms of our long-term cognitive health, a crucial pillar of healthspan. Good sleep is essential to long-term brain health, while research shows chronic poor sleep is a powerful potential cause of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Learning, Memory & Problem Solving

Both REM and NREM (deep sleep) are crucial to learning and memory. Deep sleep is when the brain clears out its cache of short-term memories in the hippocampus and selects the important ones for long-term storage in the cortex, helping us store and reinforce our most important memories of the day. Researchers have observed a direct, linear relationship between how much deep sleep we get in a given night and how well we will perform on a memory test the next day.

When we are young, REM sleep is important in helping our brains grow and develop. While we are asleep, our brain is forming new connections, and expanding our neural network. In adulthood, our REM temps to plateau, but it remains important, especially for creativity and problem solving. By generating seemingly random associations between facts and memories, and by sorting out the promising connections from the meaningless ones, the brain can often come up with solutions to problems that stumped us the previous day. REM sleep is especially helpful with what is called procedural memory, learning new ways of moving the body.

Our Emotional Health

REM sleep helps us process our emotional memories, helping separate our emotions from the memory of the negative (or positive) experience that triggered those emotions. This is why if we go to bed upset about something, it almost always seems better in the morning. We remember the event but eventually forget the pain that accompanied it. Without this break for emotional healing, we would live in a state of constant how anxiety, every memory triggering a renewed surge of the emotions around the event, like PTSD.

REM sleep helps us maintain our emotional awareness. When we are deprived of REM, studies have found, we have more difficult time reading others' facial expressions. REM sleep seems to protect our emotional equilibrium, while helping process memories and information.

picture of the Pacific Ocean and a women's retreat

How Sleep Affects Your Heart: Cardiovascular Health & Heart Disease

Many studies have found powerful associations between insufficient sleep (less than seven hours a night on average) and adverse health outcomes, ranging from increased susceptibility to the common cold to dying of a heart attack. The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children.

Cardiovascular & Heart Disease

Poor sleep is strongly associated with cardiovascular and heart disease. When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, mobilizing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which raises the heart rate and blood pressure. Poor sleep has the same effect, putting the sympathetic nervous system on high alert. We get stuck in fight or flight and our heart rate and blood pressure remain elevated. This, in turn, multiplies the stress placed on our vasculature.

Two large meta-analyses have found that short sleep (less than six hours) is associated with about 6-26 percent increase in cardiovascular disease. One particular study found that sleeping less than six hours a night was associated with about 20 percent higher risk of a heart attack.

picture of colorful foods with 30-day meal plans

How Sleep Affect Aging, Metabolism, the Food We Eat and Athletic Performance

Sleep is as fundamental to our health as stability is fundamental to strength and science has proven that we need to sleep about seven and a half to eight and a half hours a night.


Studoes have found that people who sleep less chronically tend to have older-looking, flabbier skin than people their same age who sleep more.


Poor sleep wreaks havoc on our metabolism. Even in the short term, sleep deprivation can cause profound insulin resistance. Sleep researcher Eve van Cauter of the University of Chicago subjected healthy young people to severely restricted sleep, just 4.5 hours a night, and found that after four days they had the elevated insulin levels of obese middle-aged diabetics and, approximately 50 percent reduction in their capacity for glucose disposal. This is a consistent finding in sleep research, which consistent findings are rare in medicine, making it clear that poor or inadequate sleep can help tilt us into metabolic dysfunction.


Poor sleep changes the way we behave around food. Studies by Eve van Cauter's group found that limiting subjects' sleep to four or five hours a night suppresses their levels of leptin, the hormone that signals to use that we are fed, while increasing levels of ghrelin, the "hunger hormone". When we sleep poorly, we can be desperately, irrationally hungry the next day, and more likely to reach for high-calorie and sugary foods. Follow-up studies by van Cauter's group found that short-sleeping subjects ate about three hundred extra calories' worth of food the following day, compared with when they were well rested. This is the perfect beginning of insulin resistance.

Athletic Performance

Good sleep is like a performance enhancing drug. Even a single night of bad sleep has been found to have deleterious effects on our physical and cognitive performance. Athletes who sleep poorly the night before a race or match perform markedly worse than when they are well rested. Endurance drops, VO2 max drops, and one-rep max strength drops. Even our ability to perspire is impaired. A 2014 observational study found that young athletes who slept less than six hours per night were more than two and a half times more likely to experience an injury than their peers who slept eight hours or more.

orange image with blog information

10 Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep & Sleep Well

There are many ways to improve your sleep. None are expensive, rather they are simple, practical, inexpensive and more than anything, require the discipline to create new sleep habits.

1. Exercise, in Particular Outdoors

picture of a women running outdoors

At least thirty minutes of outdoor exercise (strong daylight) helps keep the circadian cycle on track. (Ideally not within two to three hours before bedtime)

2. Darken Your Room Completely & Make It Cool

Make it dark enough that you can't see your hand in front of your face. If this isn't achievable, use an eye shade. Ideally your room should be in the mid-sixties. The bed should be cool too.

3. Take Natural Sleep Aid, like Melatonin or Sleepy Time Tea

picture of a candle, lavender and hot tea

Melatonin is a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness. It helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. (Being exposed to light at night can block melatonin production.) Sleepytime tea is unique among teas as it contains calming ingredients such as chamomile. These ingredients can calm the nervous system and modify the neurotransmitters involved in sleep. The flowering herb has been used for centuries to facilitate sleep.

4. Don't Drink Alcohol, but Especially Don't Drink After 6:00 p.m.

Alcohol probably impairs sleep quality more than any other factor we can control. Don't confuse the drowsiness it produces with quality sleep.

5. Don't Eat Anything Less Than Three Hours Before Bedtime

It's best to go to bed with just a little hunger

6. Prior to Bed, Take a Hot Epsom Salt Bath, Hot Shower or Sauna

Epsom Salt

When Epsom salt is dissolved in warm water, it is absorbed through the skin and increases the level of magnesium in the body. Magnesium helps produce serotonin—a mood-elevating chemical in the brain which creates a calm and relaxing sensation. Magnesium levels decrease and adrenaline levels increase. After a hot bath, massaging essential oils such as Lavender into the skin can help with relaxation. When you get into a cool bed, your lowering body temperature will signal to your brain that it's time to sleep.

7. Abstain From Stimulating Electronics, Two Hours Before Bedtime

Try to avoid anything involving a screen if you're having trouble falling asleep. If you must, use a setting that reduces blue light from your screen.

8. Avoid Doing Anything Anxiety Producing or Stimulating, One Hour Before Bed

This includes work, social media, and checking email.

9. Read a Book or Listen to a Calming Music and Sounds

Reading is a strong cognitive function that can help reduce mental chatter, which in turn, helps us drop into a quiet state of relaxation. Natural sounds relax you because they are constant noises of a pleasant pitch. Your brain interprets them as non-threatening noises, which helps reduce your fight-or-flight response. This lowers your stress level and helps you become more relaxed for sleep

10. Write in a Gratitude Journal & Give it to God

woman writing in a journal

Have a gratitude journal on your nightstand and write at least 3 things you are grateful for every night before closing your eyes. Gratitude is related to having more positive thoughts, and fewer negative ones at bedtime. This, in turn, is associated with dozing off faster and sleeping longer and better. Praying and giving it to God allows you to feel comfort and a connection with God. It gives us peace as we draw closer to sleep. It can help us begin the next day feeling closer to God.

purple image with Sleep FAQ
  • While you can recover from occasional sleep deprivation, chronic sleep deficit can have lasting health effects. It's better to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

  • Sleep occurs in cycles, with each cycle lasting around 90 minutes. A typical night's sleep includes four to six cycles. Waking up between cycles can make you feel more refreshed.

  • Babies and young children need significantly more sleep than adults. Sleep needs gradually decrease as people age.

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