Of all the things we do for our health, one of the most important is probably the least respected. We know about healthy eating. We don’t always do it, but we sure hear a lot about it. We know about the importance of exercise, and there is a whole industry built around our need for it. We don’t always do it, but we all know we should. We hear more and more about the importance of meditation, which may be on its way to being as routine as brushing our teeth—which is another thing we do for our health. We get regular physical exams, have our eyes checked, and go to the dentist.

What we don’t do, as a culture, is get enough sleep. And that is a shame, because sleep is a cornerstone of health and a pillar of good mental health. When we get enough sleep, our brains operate efficiently. This improves both our cognitive skills and our moods. Our reaction time is better, we are easier to get along with, we even eat less.

But as a culture, we adore staying up late, getting up early, and applauding ourselves for being so busy.

When Edison invented the light bulb, he rejoiced that human beings would no longer “waste” so much time sleeping. Before electricity, people slept when the sun was down. In the winter, that could be a very long time. Now we do have electricity and we certainly won’t be in bed for 14 hours on December 21st. But the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. We have plenty of light, and illuminated screens, to guide us through endless and, contrary to Edison’s hopes, often mindless activity. We do this to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.

Even one night of poor sleep causes irritability and moodiness, and decreases our inhibitions. Over time the consequences can be severe. Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation leads to increased mortality risk, weight gain, moodiness, irritability, accidents, heart disease, and decreased immune function. And the consequences for teens are grave: sleepy teens have trouble with weight gain, moodiness, and learning, and sleepy-driving accidents are most prevalent in drivers under age 25.

How much is enough? You probably have heard that adults need seven hours of sleep. In reality, while individual sleep needs vary, we need about eight hours of sleep each night. Teenagers need more, about nine and a quarter hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, 85% of teens report getting less than the recommended amount, and 15% get fewer than 6.5 hours. Adults do a little better, but still 30% of us sleep less than seven hours a night and increasing numbers of us are getting fewer than six hours of sleep per night.

So what can you do to get more sleep?

  1. Make sleep a priority.
  2. Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  3. Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bed.
  4. Turn off “blue screens” (TV, iPad, monitors) two hours before bed.
  5. Decrease caffeine consumption and don’t drink caffeine six hours before bedtime.
  6. Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
  7. Restructure your day so that you can get eight solid hours of sleep.

Try it for a week and see how you feel. Try it for three weeks and create a new habit. Model it for your children, and make sleep health a priority in your home. You will find yourself slimmer, more alert, easier to be with, happier, and healthier!