What's so important about getting those zzzzzz's? Think about the last time you woke up after a really good night's sleep. Remember how energized and refreshed you felt? Your body's natural daily cycles of expansion, activity, and growth are taxing. Periods of nightly restorative rest and repair actually reverse that wear and tear. When allowed to recover from those normal but significant demands, your body rewards you by delivering optimal levels of health and efficiency.

What happens when that opportunity for R-and-R is taken away? You already know that without enough sleep, your body will show signs of fatigue, ranging from annoyance to depletion. But did you know that even illness can result? In fact, studies show that lack of sleep is a major underlying cause of the body's malfunction and eventual breakdown.

In addition to flagging energy during the day, sleep deprivation may initiate physical and mental problems that can truly disrupt our day--and life. Lack of rest can contribute to pain, inflammation, stress hormone production, and even accelerated aging and increased obesity. Yes, it's true! Valid studies show that the less you sleep, the sooner and more likely you are to get old and fat. Include with that poor memory, disorientation, and a weakened immune system, and you have a recipe for big-time illness and dysfunction. Too little sleep also decreases your alertness and response time, leading to dangerous driving situations.

Add all that on top of exhaustion and feeling just plain "off" during the day, and the message is very clear: Getting better sleep isn't a luxury. It's a requirement for good health and safety.

To understand why sleep is so critical, let's start with the basics. What happens during your nightly rest? Every night, you rotate through four phases of sleep, a cycle that repeats about every 90 minutes. In Phase One, your brainwaves slow, muscles relax, and blood pressure drops slightly. Phase Two, lasting from several minutes to an hour, is characterized by physical relaxation accompanied by increased levels of brain activity and REM ("rapid eye movement"), a state often marked by vivid dreaming. In Phases Three and Four, your brainwaves reach the ultraslow, regular frequency of deep sleep.

You might be thinking, Why do I need to know all that? The bottom line is this: Without a long enough period of rest, or if sleep is interrupted, you body is not able to experience all four stages of sleep proportionately--and you won't reap the beneficial physiological effects of each stage.

Causes of lack of sleep are complex and often occur in combination. You know the usual ones: too much caffeine, traveling to different time zones, noise, children, middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom, and pain. But did you realize that the following physical and behavioral factors can also play a role in your staying awake?

drinking alcohol before bedtime (which might seem relaxing at first but backfires by keeping you up later on)
smoking before bedtime
being a woman over 40 (most likely group to be wakeful)
having anxiety about--you guessed it--inability to sleep
physiological problems such as snoring and sleep apnea
not listening to your body's cues or giving in to a "second (or third) wind"

In addition, your sleep environment can work against you. Here are a few characteristics of poor sleeping conditions:

any light at all in the room--not just streetlight seeping into windows but also the glow of computers, TVs, and illuminated clocks
a room that's too cold or too warm
an old mattress that needs to be replaced

For many of us, sleep is an elusive endeavor. With heavy, stressful work schedules and the demands of daily life on our shoulders, we are challenged to get the rest we need to be productive, healthy, and energized. But take heart. We can learn to control at least some of the factors that affect our ability to rest.

Enough talk--let's take action. Use the lists above to take two steps toward better health today.

True, some of the physical factors above are things you can't fix (such as being an over-forty female) or can't do much to correct by yourself (sleep apnea, for example). But you CAN control many of the behavioral ones. Start small by eliminating alcohol and smoking, and not being tempted to work through a "second wind."
Assess and adjust your sleep environment. Try it tonight, then dedicate a week to resting in optimal conditions. You may be surprised at the improvement you feel.

There are a number of dietary supplements and holistic techniques that can help you find you invite the Sandman. But take the first step now by starting with the simple tips above. The benefits of a good night's sleep--and better yet, the good health you enjoy with a regular pattern and habit of sleep--are too valuable to ignore.

Author's Bio: 

Roberta Roberts Mittman, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., M.S., is a nutritional and lifestyle consultant, holistic mindset mentor, and nationally board-certified acupuncturist. Using natural, drug-free techniques, Roberta opens the door to complete mind-body health. Roberta's goal is not only to relieve patients' illness and discomfort, but to help them set realistic goals for physical and mental preventative care and overall wellness. Roberta believes in empowering individuals to be their own best healers.