Sleep is the ultimate anti-aging strategy.

Anyone remember from the old movies how people who were stressed out and experiencing what was then quaintly called a “nervous breakdown” were sent away to a sanitarium for the “rest cure”? Makes sense when you think about it—after all, when your dog gets sick, what does he do? He usually curls up in a corner, won’t eat, and sleeps a lot. He’s basically taking a rest cure. This is the animal’s natural way of healing. No extra energy is spent on external things such a sdigestion, and all the body’s resources are mobilized for the task at hand. Sleep and rest minimize the “output” and allow the body to replenish, renourish, and repair. We were programmed to get about eight hours at the end of every day to accomplish much the same thing your dog accomplishes when he curls up and naps till he feels better.

Except that we’re not doing it. Not even close.

Scientists don’e even fully understand exactly why our bodies need sleep, but they know that we do. Sleep generates hormones, such as human growth hormone, the ultimate anti-aging hormone (released only in the dep stages of sleep), and melatonin, which appears to have powerful antioxidant and anticancer properties. Biochemicals get replaced during sleep.

And let’s not forget that lack of sleep is a huge stressor, causing our bodies to secrete cortisol, whose aging effects can be considerable. (Cortisol shrinks a portion of the brain called the hippocampus; it also puts on belly fat.) In short, not getting enough sleep can shorten our life and diminish its quality in multiple ways.

But it’s not just the quantity of sleep we get, it’s also the quality.

Sleep is essential to memory, mood, and cognitive performance, all markers for a healthylifestyle. All diminish as you get older unless you take good care of your sleep. Inadequate sleep is linked to increase anger, anxiety, and sadness, all diminishers of the quality (and potentially length) of your life. One study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when subjects were only allowed to sleep 4.5 hours a night they exhibited significantly more stress, anger, and mental exhaustion.

Then there’s obesity and diabetes and all the life-shortening syndromes and conditions that come with being overweight and having an impaired metabolism. A study at the University of Chicago showed that under-sleeping for even a few days impairs sugar metabolism and disrupts hormone levels– in some cases to a prediabetic level!

Sleep also affects immunity. One study showed that after being restricted to only four hours a night for four nights straight, people who got the flu shot actually produced less than half as many flu-fighting antibodies as the folks who weren’t sleep deprived!

What to do, what to do?

1) Go to bed ½ hour earlier.

It’s way easier to add sleep on at the beginning of your sleep than at the end of it. Keep going to bed ½ hour earlier each week till you get to the ideal number of hours for your body (for me it’s six, for many it’s eight, for a very few it might be nine).

2) Change the temperature.

The bedroom should be cool and comfortable. Dr. Sara Gottfried recommends 68 degrees.

3) Accept that you’re not Hugh Hefner.

The bedroom is not an office. It should be a place to retreat to. Ideally, the bedroom should be a sanctuary, and should be for two things only: sleeping and getting lucky. Don’t try to make your bed an office. It’s not, and trying to make it one will only screw up your sleep.

4.) Prepare properly.

Watching the news is not a calming preparation for sleep. Turn off the TV for ½ hour before bed, make some tea, and for goodness sake, relax. You deserve it! And more importantly, you need it.