Today in the chart

The Value of a Sleep Log

Getting enough sleep might be the most important thing you can do for your health, even above healthy eating and regular physical activity.

Credit: Ivan Oboleninov

Getting enough sleep might be the most important thing you can do for your health, even above healthy eating and regular physical activity. That’s not because healthy eating and regular physical activity aren’t hugely important—they are. Still, when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and getting adequate exercise is much more challenging. 

Sleep deprivation makes us irritable and snippy with others and affects our judgment and food choices. Several studies have found that insufficient sleep affects what foods we crave, and it’s not the low-calorie, healthy ones. We also have less inhibition and less ability to keep away intrusive thoughts, including those that can contribute to unhealthy eating. And, of course, if you’re sleepy or fatigued, it’s much harder to motivate yourself to work out. Because sleep affects our metabolism, your body won’t burn calories as efficiently if you exercise on too little sleep.

Yet, for all its importance, sleep is often underappreciated and undervalued in American society, and getting a good night’s sleep in today’s hectic world often feels elusive, if not impossible. On top of family and work responsibilities, our digital devices are primed to interfere with our sleep in every way possible, from their blue light interfering with the release of melatonin to the addictive nature of games and social media that can keep us up longer than we planned. 

So, if sleep is so important, how can we improve it? There are two components to focus on that are equally important: quantity and quality. First, though, figure out your baseline. 

Keep a Sleep Log

Adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but it varies from person to person. Some people constantly need nine hours of sleep every night. Others might feel great with just seven hours every night. What matters is how much sleep you need, which only you can figure out. Ideally, you’d figure it out during a week or two off when you have fewer responsibilities, but most of us don’t have that luxury. 

Instead, try keeping a sleep log for at least two weeks where you note when you went to bed, when you fell asleep, woke up, how much total sleep you got, factors that might have affected your sleep (like drinking caffeine or exercising), and how well rested or sleepy you felt during the day. The Sleep Foundation (separate from the National Sleep Foundation) has a comprehensive sleep log form you can print out or save to your computer and fill out as a pdf. An activity tracker like Fitbit or Apple Watch can help track your sleep, but it won’t note when you got into bed, so it’s still a good idea to keep a separate log for two weeks. There are also loads of sleep-tracking apps, which Very Well Mind and the Wirecutter have helpfully reviewed and ranked.

Look for Patterns in Your Sleep

After two weeks, examine your log and look for trends. First, can you identify how many hours of sleep you appear to need without feeling particularly sleepy or fatigued the next day? If not, you may want to track your sleep longer, including days with more or less sleep, to see what happens. That might be impossible some weeks, depending on your work, family, and responsibilities, but know if you can find at least one week to experiment to figure out the sweet spot where you get just the right amount of sleep.

Next, is your sleep consistent regarding when you go to bed, when you get up, and how much sleep you get? Did you get enough sleep any nights so that you didn’t feel sleepy or tired the next day or as though you needed a gallon of caffeine to keep yourself going? If you feel exhausted every day, try to determine why. 

Getting too little sleep might be one reason, but there are other reasons for feeling tired:

  • Are you experiencing depression? 
  • Do you have a chronic condition that affects your energy levels?
  • Are your thyroid levels in the normal range? 
  • Do you have a sleep disorder? 

Those aren’t the only possibilities; they’re a place to start. If you’ve eliminated these and other possible reasons for feeling sleepy or tired each day, focus on figuring out how much sleep you need each night so you don’t feel that. (If one of these applies, talk to your doctor about addressing that issue.)

Look for Behavior Patterns

Finally, if you kept a comprehensive one, your sleep log might also reveal other patterns, such as having more difficulty falling asleep on days when you have more caffeine or how exercising at different times of the day affects your sleep. If you aren’t getting enough quantity or quality of sleep, then, if possible, try to experiment with moving around your workout times, meal times, and other activities to see if it positively impacts your sleep. 

Your goal is to use a sleep log in two-week increments to explore what does and doesn’t help you get enough sleep. When you figure out what you need, you can focus on achieving that. 

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