Turns out, you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars to take better care of yourself.  

By Lauren Wicks
Updated: April 03, 2019

The wellness market is a booming $4.2 trillion industry globally—enticing those of us who are overworked and exhausted with the healing benefits of exotic spa retreats, anti-aging elixirs, and boutique fitness memberships—all in the name of rejuvenating our minds and healing (or protecting) our bodies. But contrary to what Instagram influencers and celebrities may have us believe, practicing self-care doesn’t need to cost a lot of money—in fact, one of the most fundamental self-care practices is absolutely free: Getting a good night’s sleep.

More and more studies are discovering strong associations between inadequate sleep and a host of health conditions, including obesity, depression, and chronic inflammation. It's clear tha getting too little sleep can cause long-term damage to your physical and mental health. The side effects are so alarming, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recently added Sleep Health as a new priority for developing the country’s Healthy People 2020 guidelines.

The National Sleep Foundation advises adults between the ages of 18-64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health, but more than one third of us miss that mark. The organization’s website says prioritizing a good night’s sleep will not only help us feel rested but will reduce stress, boost mood, improve focus and help manage weight—all things many of us pay good money to “fix” through various wellness products and self-care practices.

A recent review of 135 peer-reviewed studies on sleep and its impact on health found the less sleep we get, the more at risk we are for poor health. Those who choose to stay up late instead of turning in at an appropriate hour are more likely to consistently make poor eating choices, have a lower metabolism, and develop chronic diseases. They were also more likely to seek to “catch up on sleep” over the weekend—a concept that has recently been proven ineffective.

Interested in tips for getting better sleep?

So no matter how many spas you take, or yoga retreats you go on, your time is actually much better spent getting enough shuteye. Trying to cheat on sleep actually cheats you of achieving optimal health: Six or fewer hours of sleep each night hinders the body from functioning properly. Our bodies need those seven to eight resting hours each night to get to work—regulating metabolism, insulin production, the immune system, and all those pesky hormones responsible for hunger cues and stress levels.

Research shows the negative effects of inadequate sleep begin after just a few nights in a row of getting 1-2 hours less than we need. It’s going to take a lot more than a day at the spa or a few superfood smoothies to reverse the damage done if we are consistently missing out on it!

Luckily, it’s never too late to start a new habit, and prioritizing your sleep schedule will clearly be worth the effort. Here are a few ways to start catching those Zzzz’s for good:

Start winding down at the same time every night

Having a morning routine is a priority for many people, but what about a nightly routine? Research show we function best when we go to bed and wake up within a similar time frame every day. Setting a timer an hour before your desired bedtime can help you remember to go ahead finish up your tasks for the day—and that you only have time for one more episode of your favorite Netflix show.

Exercise regularly

Whether you’re a morning workout warrior or prefer to lift weights after work, one review of studies regarding the impacts of exercise on sleep show it just might be the most impactful way to improve sleep quality. Breaking a sweat at some point in the day has also shown to help us wind down earlier in the evening as opposed to remaining sedentary for most of the day.

Exercise also reduces stress, which is a major inhibitor of of sleep quality and quantity—so much so that 37 percent of Americans associate their exhaustion with stress. And then the lack of sleep affects stress, making it a vicious cycle! Taking at least thirty minutes out of your day several times a week to break a sweat is another free self-care practice with some major health benefits. Just make sure you give yourself at least two hours between exercising and bed.

Watch what you eat in the evening hours

It can be tempting to want to unwind with a glass of wine and a comforting meal at the end of a long day, but be careful what you consume at night. Foods high in sugar, saturated fat, and spices can all contribute to slower digestion and prevent restful sleep. And yes, alcohol too. 

Several foods, however, have actually shown to help induce sleep. Calcium-rich dairy products may help make you sleepy as well as leafy greens, legumes, and fish.

Unplug

It may be tempting to check your work email just one more time before hitting the hay—and we’ve all been guilty of falling asleep in front of the TV—but the blue light emitted by phone, computer and tv screens all disrupt circadian rhythms. Steering clear of devices an hour or two before bedtime not only helps keep added stress at bay, but it frees us up to unwind with a bath or a good book instead.