When it comes to health and well-being nothing is more important than sleep. Consistent, sufficient quality sleep is critical to our mental and physical health; in fact, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

In a society that prizes productivity, the “down time” that sleep represents has not been held in very high esteem.

“Historically, we’ve been pretty callous about it,” said Dr. David Dedrick, medical director for St. Charles Health System’s Sleep Center.

For many, it’s a point of pride to get by on little sleep; a mentality expressed by the late, great Warren Zevon: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” In reality, if you don’t get enough sleep, chances are you will be dead, before your time.

Recent research makes it clear: sleep is vital and nothing to be fooled around with.

“The field has made some just stunning movement in terms of just understanding the physiological importance of sleep,” Dr. Dedrick said. “The wheels, quite simply come off the cart when you don’t get the right amount of sleep… It’s really irrefutable at this point in time.”

Our brains and bodies flush toxic metabolites as we sleep, and sleep is when we tend to our DNA. Inadequate sleep can exacerbate high blood pressure and depression, alter our mood for the worse, make us more impulsive — and research shows that chronic inadequate sleep shortens our lifespan.

So how much sleep do we need?

“You really want to be getting around seven (hours) — in the ballpark,” Dr. Dedrick said.

Anything less than six hours a day is problematic.

“People will trick themselves: ‘I do fine with five hours of sleep,’” he said. “They’re not.”

How do you ensure that you get those seven hours, night after night?

“We have to follow the rules,” Dr. Dedrick said. “And, unfortunately, the rules are boring.”

Those rules are:

• Maximum of one alcoholic drink, no closer than four hours before bedtime.

• Limit caffeine consumption and stay away from it in the afternoon.

• Stay off screens for several hours before bedtime.

Little devils of alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol is seductive, because, as a sedative, it makes us sleepy. But alcohol is a drug, and its effects are insidious. Withdrawal, which happens later in the sleep cycle, creates agitation, wakefulness, and anxiety.

“(Alcohol) might be the number one offender in sleep problems,” Dr. Dedrick said. “Because one thing we’re doing more of during the pandemic is drinking. And it’s not helping us when it comes to sleep.”

Most people recognize that a cup of coffee late in the day is not a good idea. Caffeine can persist in the body for as much as six hours.

We’re less cognizant of how much our addiction to our phones affects our sleep. The light stimulation throws off our circadian rhythms, Dr. Dedrick notes. Those are the physical cues that let us know that it’s time to go to sleep.

It’s not just the light that causes a problem though. The content of what we’re scrolling through can be agitating and make it more difficult to sleep. Some people have a hard time resisting the impulse to check email or scroll when they wake up at 3 a.m.

All of this destroys quality sleep.

“Just get the phone out of your bedroom,” Dr. Dedrick insists.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake

Some people have no problem falling asleep — but they wake up at 3 a.m. and they’re awake.

Dr. Dedrick notes that falling asleep and remaining asleep are two separate processes in the body.

“They have to hand off the baton to each other,” he said. “The baton can get dropped.”

When that happens, the body takes cues from the brain and thinks it’s time to get up.

“The body says, ‘OK, I guess we’re waking up — let’s power up the factory.’”

The heart rate goes up and the body gets ready to rise. When that happens, there can be a cascade of effects that make it hard to go back to sleep. We start thinking about all we have to do the next day — and we start getting anxious about not being able to relax.

To break that cycle, Dr. Dedrick suggests finding a technique that gets your brain to “simmer down.”

Yoga breathing techniques can be helpful. Put aside the fretting.

“Tell yourself, ‘I’ll deal with that in the morning,’” Dr. Dedrick said.

To nap or not to nap

In the dark depths of winter, a nap on the couch is mighty tempting. That can be a good thing — or not — depending on length and how much we’re sleeping at night.

“Short naps are probably good for you,” Dr. Dedrick said. “It can be surprising how restorative a brief nap can be.”

When we’re feeling wrung out in the afternoon, a short nap is a far better idea than a jolt of coffee.

A restorative nap is a brief 20 minutes — a half hour at the outside. Longer than that, you may be throwing your sleep cycle into disarray.

“If your goal is to sleep well at night, napping during the day is going to be counterproductive,” he said.

Longer naps may be in order for people who have issues with chronic pain and simply can’t stay in bed for hours at a stretch. For them, splitting sleep into a nap of a couple of hours and a five-hour stretch in bed may make sense. And for those whose work doesn’t conform with natural circadian rhythms, napping may be a necessary tool.

“If you’re a shift-worker, napping can be your lifeline,” Dr. Dedrick said.

When to seek help

If you’re doing all the right things — following the rules — and you still consistently have trouble sleeping, it may be time to get some help. Dr. Dedrick recommends starting with your primary care physician, exploring whether underlying conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure are causing sleep problems.

Sleep apnea — when breathing is interrupted during sleep — or movement disorders may require the attention of a sleep specialist.

Chronic pain has to be addressed before sleep will come.

“Pain is not a good bedfellow of sleep,” Dr. Dedrick said. “Until you’ve dealt with the pain, you’re not going to sleep.”

Most people can improve their sleep through improved sleep hygiene. And Dr. Dedrick emphasizes that the sleep center has a good track record helping people with more challenging issues.

“I would say that we make the situation better at least 80 percent of the time,” he said.

Sleep, diet, and exercise are the triad upon which health and well-being are built — and it’s important to keep them all up if you want to live well.

Dr. Dedrick highly recommends the book “Why We Sleep,” by Matthew Walker.