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“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” – Some Anonymous Idiot
We’ve all heard this quote, most likely from an interview in a business magazine with some mega-billionaire CEO. Of course this person is either a walking collection of crazy or some genetically gifted mutant. I’m actually not kidding about that mutant option, as those who thrive on little sleep may have a rare genetic mutation according to a recent sleep study at the University of San Francisco. Of course, that mutation was found in just 2 out of 1000 study participants – so rare is right.
The rest of us need sleep and need it badly. And we probably need more of it than we think, or at least more than we’re inclined to let ourselves get by on.
In a 2002 study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (PDF), it was found that the majority of American adults (68%) don’t get the recommended 8 hours of sleep needed for good health and optimum performance, and more than one-third (39%) sleep less than 7 hours nightly. Strangely (yet ironically) enough, a staggering 85% of those surveyed said they would sleep more if they knew it would improve their health.
Guess what? It does improve your health. And your sex life, body shape, and ability to stay awake during Avatar in IMAX 3D. It’s also the best way to improve your mood and the way you respond when you’re frustrated or stressed out. In other words, good sleep can keep you from being a jerk AND help you look and feel better.
Lack of sleep can also have a profound effect on memory and other cognitive skills. In an interesting study, researchers measured cognitive function in sleep-deprived, right-handed men and found that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on cognitive functions associated with "right-brained" functions such as "motor, rhythm, receptive & expressive speech, memory and complex verbal arithmetic function." (PDF link)
There are a number of ways to improve your sleep habits – this post is just going to scratch the surface with six basic habits you should start incorporating into your life if you don’t already. Over the next few months, I’m sure there will be six more… and then six more and so on. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere!
1. Know how much sleep you need, and make it a priority
This one may take some trial and error, but its impact on your lifestyle will be immeasurable. Draw a correlation between the number of hours you sleep on a given night and your energy levels the following day. (Make sure to maintain a constant diet as changes in your diet could cause your energy levels to vary considerably.) Before going to sleep, start a stopwatch or a timer. (If you fall asleep as your head hits the pillow, it is a sure sign of sleep deprivation!). As soon as you wake up, stop the timer and record the total time you were asleep in a sleep journal.
Do this for about two weeks, making sure to record your energy level using a 1-10 scale in your journal each day. When you felt "awake" and full of vigor throughout the day, score it a 10. If you’re nodding off at your desk and have little or no real energy, give that day a 1. (While the scoring will be subjective, since you are the only one performing the evaluations, it should be relatively reliable.)
At the end of the two-week period, you should be able to determine your "ideal" nightly sleep target, which should fall somewhere between 7 and 10 hours depending on genetics (few can get by with only 6 hours and VERY few can get by with less than 6). Now, make it a priority to reach your quota by doing whatever you can to put sleep first!
If you’re too lazy to do this (no judgment here! I am too) then start with somewhere between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night as this is the most common requirement.
2. Limit your naps, if you need them, to 15-30 minutes
It’s natural to feel sluggish or tired every once in a while. If you feel the urge to nap, do it! There are a couple of caveats though, and they’re important to remember. Try not to nap in the late afternoon, as it could delay the time you fall asleep at night and cause your internal sleep clock to go haywire for a few days.
Napping in the late morning or early afternoon, on the other hand, can help you feel more alert throughout the day and give your system a needed "boost" as well as promote faster recuperation from intense exercise. Keep the amount of time you spend napping to a minimum, usually no more than 30 minutes. A short nap is all the body needs to revitalize the nervous system and restore alertness. Any longer, and your body falls into delta (deep) sleep and you may have trouble waking up. And when you do, you may be irritable or slightly dazed.
See How to Power Nap on WikiHow for more on this.
3. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
It’s very important to go to bed and wake up (unassisted!) at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help regulate your internal sleep clock, making sure you are at your most awake during the day when you need it most. Interestingly, if you maintain a constant sleep schedule for a few weeks, you may find that your nightly quota will decrease slightly, and you will be more alert on less sleep each night!
4. Pay back your "sleep debt" as soon as possible
Think of your body like a bank. Every time you fail to meet your sleep quota, your body registers it as debt and expects to be "paid back”. Your sleep debt will continue to accumulate until you make up for it! Have you ever noticed that you naturally sleep more the night after a late-night? That’s your body attempting to make up for lost sleep.
Unfortunately, however, your body can’t store sleep just like it can’t store exercise results. You can’t sleep 12 hours one night and expect to get by on 4 the next if your quota is 8 hours nightly. With that said, it becomes even more important to maintain a regular sleep schedule.
5. Avoid alcohol before bed
Many people believe that a glass of wine right before bed will help them sleep better. The opposite is true. While the alcohol may "knock you out" and make you feel very relaxed initially, it disrupts sleep later on throughout the night.
Alcohol, taken less than 4 hours before bedtime, will severely limit REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is essential for daytime alertness. While you may not even realize it, alcohol could in fact be the indirect cause of lethargy throughout the day. You may also find yourself waking up more often throughout the night, and that’s an indicator that a deep sleep state isn’t being reached.
6. Practice good sleep hygiene
Maintaining a regular “wind down” routine can help improve your sleep. Some general tips in this arena include:
- Read some fiction – or something that helps get your mind off of other things. Non-fiction can get your mind working too hard, which is not conducive to good sleep. Read something fun.
- Shut down computer screens at least 30-60 minutes prior to retiring. The light emitted from screens can disrupt circadian rhythms and make it harder to fall asleep. (Snarky note: this is the reason I won’t be buying an iPad for nighttime reading anytime soon)
- Remove your TV from the bedroom. Certainly don’t watch prior to falling asleep if you’re having trouble.
- Kick dogs, cats, and chimps out of your bed. They’ve been known to disrupt sleep, even if you aren’t aware of it.
- Break up your nightly routine into multiple parts to make it easier to go to bed. For example, I take out my contact lenses a few hours before going to bed because I know that when the time comes to get ready, that annoying act of taking out my contacts will give me an excuse not to start the process. And I’ll stay up later.
- Keep your bedroom cool – but not cold. Cooler temperatures are best for sleep.
- Use a white noise generator (fan, noise machine, etc.) to drown out the sounds of pets, cars, or other hindrances to a good night’s sleep.
- Straighten up your bedroom each night. This can help you get out of bed in the morning.
Stop reading this now… and go get some sleep if you need it. It’s important if you expect to be able to focus at the level you obviously want to (otherwise, what are you doing reading this?)
Thanks to Dr. James Maas of Cornell University for first opening my eyes to the importance of sleep fifteen years ago.