Campus News

3 ways to prioritize sleep

A UNC Health expert offers tips for getting good-quality rest, which studies show lessens the risk of obesity and improves cardiac health.

Woman yawning
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With shows to binge-watch, chapters to read and social media feeds to scroll, prioritizing sleep can sometimes feel impossible, but it’s so important.

Getting the proper amount of quality sleep — seven to nine hours per night for adults — is vital for our mental and physical health.

“Sleep is important for so many things, including improved mood, concentration, productivity, energy and boosting immunity,” says UNC Health clinical psychologist Linda Myerholtz. “Studies have shown getting good-quality sleep lessens our risk for obesity and weight gain, and it improves our cardiac health.”

Here are three steps you can take to prioritize your sleep.

Plan a better sleep routine

Map out a sleep routine and stick to it. First, this means going to bed and getting up around the same time each day, even on weekends.

“I encourage people to get up when they would for work and to try to maintain a similar bedtime” every day of the week, Myerholtz said. “It is important to maintain your routine with sleep because that works really well for our brains, knowing how to transition to sleep time and wake time.”

Next, create a bedtime routine that will help your brain unwind, relax and recognize that it’s time for sleep. Follow the same steps each evening. For example, take a warm bath, brush your teeth and read for 30 minutes before you turn out the lights. Try to include things you look forward to so you will stay consistent.

Also make sure you have a sleep-friendly bedroom. Your bedroom should be cool and dark. Reduce clutter — a tidy room promotes restful sleep.

Be sure to dust and vacuum your bedroom regularly. A sleep environment with less dust will help you limit the severity of snoring, sleep apnea and allergies — all of which can keep you up at night.

Eliminate screen time before bed

Turn off the electronics at least an hour before lights-out. Portable electronic devices disturb sleep in two major ways:

  • They provide an activity — whether it’s reading the news, checking your Instagram feed or trying to solve the daily Wordle — that keeps you engaged with the device rather than relaxing and going to sleep.
  • In physiological terms, most liquid crystal display (LCD) screens emit shortwave blue light directly into your eyes. Blue light tells your body to suppress the release of melatonin that would otherwise be helping you fall asleep.

“Even a small amount of light is still getting to your brain, and it’s creating this confusion in our brain of, ‘Wait, I’m supposed to be sleeping, but there’s light, so what do I do about that?’” Myerholtz said.

If you like the convenience of an electronic device for reading before you go to sleep, consider using a non-LCD e-reader that doesn’t emit blue light.

If you do wake up in the middle of the night, try not to check your phone or email.

Make an appointment with your primary care provider

If you have persistent problems sleeping and you’ve addressed the environmental and behavioral factors that might be causing difficulties, it’s time to talk to your doctor.

Chronic insomnia may have a number of underlying causes, including anxiety, depression, asthma and chronic pain. If your insomnia is secondary to another condition, treating that condition may help alleviate your sleep problems.

Your doctor may also prescribe a sleep aid that is not habit-forming to help you get back into a healthy sleep routine, or refer you to a sleep specialist.

Another concern your doctor may explore is obstructive sleep apnea. If you have sleep apnea, it’s important to get treatment because the condition increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.

“If you’re getting a decent amount of sleep, between seven to nine hours a night, but you’re still waking up feeling really groggy and tired, it’s a really good time to talk to your doctor to determine if there is something medically going on that’s impacting your ability to sleep, such as sleep apnea,” Myerholtz said.

Sometimes, medications affect your sleep quality.

If you’re still exhausted despite consistently getting a full night’s sleep, talk to your doctor. “There are a lot of things that we can do to help improve that sleep,” Myerholtz said. “And it may be as simple as adjusting a medication or timing of a medication that you take.”

Take UNC Health’s free online SleepAware assessment to find out if you’re at risk for a sleep disorder.

Linda Myerholtz

Linda Myerholtz

Linda Myerholtz is a clinical psychologist at UNC Family Medicine and an associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine.

Read more stories from UNC Health Talk.