How Your ‘Sleep Style’ Can Determine Your Long-Term Health

April 9, 2024 — For Ryan Wong, weekends were always a desperate attempt to play catch-up on sleep. 

The 34-year-old human resources manager from Cheyenne, WY, said his nights often involved tossing and turning, leaving him exhausted. Daytime naps were “tempting,” he said, but “always left me groggy and weirdly out of sorts.”

It wasn’t until Ryan decided to focus solely on improving his nighttime routine that his sleep issues resolved.

“I swapped afternoon naps for a calming bedtime routine. I read, do light stretches, and have a lukewarm bath. Sticking with it made a world of difference,” he said. 

The way you sleep — or don’t — can be surprisingly impactful. A new study from Penn State University found that the type of sleeper you are may profoundly influence the roadmap your health takes for a decade or longer. 

Researchers asked their study participants four simple questions to start this analysis: How regular their sleep was, how long they slept on average, whether they felt refreshed after waking up, and if they had daytime sleepiness. Based on this self-reported data, people were classified into four “sleep types”:

The researchers found that a decade later, insomniac “types” had a 10% higher chance of having a serious illness, such as diabetes, heart and blood vessel-related events, or depression.

“Our findings indicate that suboptimal sleep health profiles are associated with a higher risk for the onset of chronic conditions,” said lead study author Soomi Lee, PhD, director of the Sleep, Stress, and Health Lab at Penn State University.

Other recent studies have also noted how lack of sleep can cause health problems later in life. A study from the University of California, San Francisco found that people who have difficulty sleeping in their 40s and 50s may have thinking or memory problems 10 years later. 

And new research from the Yale University School of Medicine finds that sleeping poorly can contribute to the formation of white matter hyperintensities and fractional anisotropy in the brain, two things that can eventually lead to dementia and stroke.

The good news: If your sleep type is less than optimal, there’s a lot you can do to fix things. 

“The behavioral characteristics underlying these sleep health profiles, such as regularity, satisfaction, alertness, efficiency, and duration, are potentially modifiable through improved sleep hygiene practices,” said Lee. “Overall, our results suggest that prioritizing good sleep hygiene may help reduce the risk of chronic conditions, even among people with sociodemographic disadvantages and health risks.”

Practicing better sleep habits can make an immediate difference – and those who try it may notice positive changes faster than they may think, said Sarah Silverman, PsyD, a holistic sleep expert in Orlando. 

“When you’re getting good-quality sleep on a regular basis, it tends to have a domino effect into every other area of your overall health and wellness. Most people will notice improvements in as little as a couple of weeks with consistent practice of healthy sleep habits,” she said. 

Read on for a closer look at some unexpected shifts you can make right away to sleep better and ultimately protect your long-term health. 

3 Easy Habits to Kickstart Better Sleep 

Lee’s team also identified three habits that the “good sleepers” in their study use that can cut the risk of illness because they help regulate rest. 

These simple habits are:

  • Not using a cell phone in bed
  • Cutting off caffeine by the afternoon
  • Exercising on a consistent basis

Other effective ways to stabilize your sleep include: 

  • Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day
  • Keeping your room dark, quiet, not too hot, and not too cold
  • Eating small meals before bed and skipping alcohol in the evening

Other strategies can work, too.  Take Melissa Wolak, a therapeutic coach and clinical speech language cognitive therapist in Boulder, CO. The 50-year-old said she’s had trouble falling asleep since childhood. Then, “I opened myself to the possibility of my sleep changing,” she said. “I created nighttime rituals – journaling to clear my thoughts and express gratitude, tea, and dim lights. I also tried gentle yoga and meditation. I found acupuncture and magnesium helpful, too. All of these things helped rewire my brain and body to relax.  The quality of my sleep has significantly improved.”

Don’t Be a Sleep Perfectionist 

It’s important not to get hung up on an “absolute” number of hours you need to rest. 

“Quality sleep is not the same as perfect sleep, and even for the world’s best sleepers, there’s no such thing as perfect sleep,” said Silverman. “Quality sleep is typically defined as being able to fall asleep within 30 minutes and experiencing up to 30 minutes’ time awake during the night. Quality sleep also means waking up feeling well-rested and ready to tackle your day feeling your best. It’s normal to experience several wake-ups during the night. Waking up is normal, as long as you can fall back to sleep quickly.” 

It’s also important not to focus so much on your sleep issues that you get even less sleep. 

“Increased awareness of sleep issues can lead to stress, creating a potential cycle of poor sleep and heightened stress levels,” said Lee. “It’s crucial to manage stress associated with poor sleep.” 

In a nutshell, remind yourself that it’s not a big deal if you have trouble sleeping every so often. 

“However, if sleep problems occur three or more times a week and interfere with your daily life, seek medical advice,” Lee said.

Cut the Junk Food 

A study from Uppsala University in Sweden found that healthy people who ate junk food had worse restorative deep sleep than those who ate healthy foods.  Even when these study participants ate healthy foods the next day, their deep sleep continued to be less beneficial to their bodies and brains for a second night. Fill your dinner plate with healthy protein, carbs, veggies, and fruit every night instead of greasy food or sugary desserts. 

Catch Up on Sleep the Right Way 

Instead of sleeping longer on the weekends, move your bedtime up an hour at night to reset your system. Also, if you must nap occasionally, do it strategically. According to the Sleep Foundation, a 20- to 30-minute nap is the perfect length to refresh you because you won’t move into a deep sleep stage and wake up groggy. 

Consider This Form of Therapy 

For some people, adopting good habits still doesn’t result in a good night’s sleep. If that’s the case, “I typically recommend working with a sleep medicine specialist who is trained in cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the first-line treatment approach for chronic insomnia in adults,” said Silverman. “It may also be helpful to consider a sleep study to rule out any underlying physical causes of poor sleep, such as snoring, sleep-disordered breathing, or sleep apnea.” 

There’s no need to struggle alone. Talk to your doctor about treatment options that are right for you and get the rest you deserve. 

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