Sweet dreams are made of these: Understanding the science of sleep

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Quality sleep is as essential to survival as food and water, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Taking up roughly a third of our daily routine, sleep is important for many brain functions.

In addition to how nerve cells communicate with each other, recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.

Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance.

Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.

Research shows not getting a lot of sleep over a long period of time or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.

In general, people are getting less sleep than they need, although there is no magic “number of sleep hours” that works for everybody of the same age.

Babies can sleep as much as 16 to 18 hours per day, which may boost growth and development.

School-age children and teens on average need about 9.5 hours of sleep per night.

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but after age 60, nighttime sleep tends to be shorter, lighter, and interrupted by multiple awakenings.

Elderly people are also more likely to take medications that interfere with sleep.

Here are a few tips for people of all ages to improve sleep:

Set a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but no later than a few hours before going to bed.

Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.

Relax before bed – try a warm bath, reading, or another relaxing routine.

Create a room for sleep – avoid bright lights and loud sounds, keep the room at a comfortable temperature, and don’t watch TV or have a computer in your bedroom.

Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t get to sleep, do something else, like reading or listening to music, until you feel tired.

See a doctor if you have a problem sleeping or if you feel unusually tired during the day. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively.

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