I want to get down to basics today, the fundamentals that can make a world of difference in how you feel and how your days go: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise.

I’ve noticed over time that, often enough, being “healthy” is understood to mean eating right, and getting enough exercise.   Good nutrition and fitness are obviously extremely important parts of the equation, but far from the whole story.

How we feel on a day to day basis is impacted by much more than what we eat, and our level of activity. In Smarts and Stamina – The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health & Performance, authors Marie-Josee Shaar and Kathryn Britton have likened these four areas to four points of a compass, all of which interact and are interdependent. Lack of attention in any one area, over time, affects the others and the reasons for this are both physiological and psychological.

I’ll be addressing all four components of a truly healthful lifestyle in the coming weeks, but today let’s start with sleep.

It’s no secret that sleep –or the lack of it – has been a growing problem in our society for years. Chronically operating at a sleep deficit puts undue stress on the body and can lead to increased risk for weight gain or developing Type 2 diabetes. Recent research shows that adequate sleep can help fight depression and anxiety, and possibly lower our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and cancer.


Lack of sleep can take a toll on our performance, productivity, and relationships. Being tired can put you at risk for a higher incidence of car accidents, because sleeplessness affects reaction time and decision making. Conversely, being well-rested increases stamina, concentration and emotional wellbeing.

Sleep is healing and regenerative.   Its effects on both the body and brain are powerful . It balances the biochemicals in our brain that govern how we feel, behave and even how much we eat.

Given the importance of sleep to optimal health, here are some things you can do to make sure you are getting enough:

  • Decide to make sleep a priority.  How much is enough? The common recommendation is anywhere from seven to nine hours a night, and individuals vary in their need.   By the time we’re adults, we typically know how much we need based on how we feel. The National Sleep Foundation (http://sleepfoundation.org) recommends paying attention to your own individual needs by assessing how you feel on different amounts of sleep. For example, do you feel rested and alert on seven hours, or does it take a full nine for you to be at your best. Do you tend to depend on caffeine throughout the course of your day? Do you feel sleepy when at work or at school? In the end, you are your own best judge of how much you need so pay attention to how you feel to be at your best.
  • In Western society, operating on too-little sleep is sometimes heralded as a “badge of honor,” because it means (supposedly) we are being more productive, and are busy “getting things done.” Maybe we don’t want to miss out on anything! When you realize that lack of sleep actually decreases levels of productivity, and impairs focus in work and other important tasks, it may be time to reexamine our thinking on that one! A good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s essential for our health and our brain. And we are likely to miss out on things we aren’t fully present for because we are too tired.
  • Pay attention to how you operate while awake. Are you (and your kids) always scheduled, constantly on the go trying to get from one thing to the next? Do you spend a good part of your day checking your phone, email, and the like? All that activity and exposure to computer screens and artificial light adds to the release of the stress hormone cortisol, disrupting our internal body clock and making it more difficult to relax when it’s time to rest. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping, be sure to shut down your electronics at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Have a bedtime ritual. Give yourself time to wind down at the end for the day. Your body needs time to make this shift so take some time for a warm bath, meditation, or a quiet activity such as reading.

The bottom line on sleep is simple: Getting enough will make you happier, healthier and make your life better, and we all want that, don’t we?