The last two months have been hectic. I have been working on several projects in an attempt to reach self-imposed deadlines and have been overlooking my usual sleeping habits. By week three of sleeping five to six hours nightly, I began feeling the load: fatigue, irritability, hunger pangs, and emotional tension. It hit hard. One afternoon, I crawled into bed for a 20-minute catnap and woke up 18 hours later. I don’t recall ever sleeping so profoundly and for so long. My body and mind were exhausted; they didn’t need water or food, only rest, and I realized that if you don’t heed this, your body will just take over and shut down on its own to self-protect.
So it made me wonder: could we be hard-wired to underestimate our sleep needs? We may think we are doing fine sleeping less, but studies show that the more sleep-deprived we are, the less likely we are to notice the subtle effects until we literally collapse from sheer fatigue. Experts say that if you sleep for less than seven hours for three nights or more every week, you are considered sleep-deprived and a borderline insomniac.
Science teaches us that it is physiologically vital that we spend about a third of our lives unconscious for our brain and body to function properly. Still, many of us are not getting the right amount of uninterrupted high quality sleep needed. It’s taking a toll on our ability to focus and retain information; it’s affecting our moods, relationships, appetite, performance at work and our health in general.
The 2019 Philip Global Sleep Survey showed that 77% of surveyed adults recognize that sleep has an impact on their health, 62% admitted they sleep only somewhat well, and 44% stated that their sleep has worsened in the past five years. In the US alone, about 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers are alarming.
In many industries, lack of sleep is a huge safety issue. Sleep deprivation for pilots, truck and public transport drivers, shift workers, and medical residents, for instance, leads to an increased risk of dangerous and often fatal errors, says Dr. A. Singh from sleepfoundation.org. Statistics also show that a high percentage of car accidents happen because of drowsy drivers falling asleep on the wheel.
So why is this happening and how can we increase our chances of getting the sleep we need? Let’s start by understanding the basics.
What is sleep?
Experts define sleep as: entering a state between consciousness and unconsciousness where the body is resting, the nervous system is relatively inactive, eyes are closed, the postural muscles relaxed, but the brain is at work and still quite active.
Why is sleep important?
Within a minute after falling asleep, changes start to affect both the body and brain. Body temperature drops, brain activity ramps down, and the heart rate and respiration slow down as well. Several other things are happening during this time:
Nerve cells communicate and reorganize, supporting healthy brain function.
Cell repair and restored energy happen to release antioxidants, growth hormones, and proteins.
Our brain needs a certain number of sleeping hours to effectively process and store the information and knowledge acquired during the day and convert it into a memory bank we can access at will.
Sleep regulates your mood, making your waking hours creative and efficient.
Heart rate and blood pressure drop, decreasing blood vessels’ strain and reducing cardiovascular issues.
Hormones that control your appetite and help manage your weight are regulated.
What’s preventing us from getting proper sleep?
Adults and teenagers are the primary recipients of sleep deprivation: Deadlines, travel, balancing work and family, late nights, social media, stress, work shifts, hormonal changes, and some medical conditions are all valid reasons to miss out on proper rest. This trend poses many health risks and comes at a high cost: “For adults, sleeping less than seven hours per night is linked to increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, frequent mental distress, Alzheimer’s, depression and even cancer,” according to NBC Health.
Parents of teenagers should be aware of their children’s sleeping patterns as they need more sleep than we realize. As a general rule, children ages 12-18 need at least eight to 10 hours of sleep. “Teenagers experience a natural shift in circadian rhythm,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Laura Sterni, M.D. “This makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Add in early school start times and an increase in homework, extracurricular activities, college applications and sometimes part-time jobs, and sleep deprivation in teens becomes a fact.”
The Circadian Rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. The sleep-wake cycle is the clearest example. During the day, light exposure generates alertness and helps keep us awake and active. As night falls, it initiates the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep and transmits signals that help us stay asleep through the night. When properly aligned, they promote consistent and restorative sleep, but when thrown off, significant sleeping problems arise, including waking up during the night, struggling to fall asleep, low-quality, fragmented rest, and insomnia.
So what can we do to keep our cycles balanced and get the quality rest we need?
This is what I have tried:
Have a routine. Follow a consistent sleep schedule. Decide at what time you want to sleep nightly and stick to it. If you decide to be in bed by 10 p.m., start unwinding and preparing yourself at least half an hour earlier.
Daily exercise. Activity during the day can support your internal clock and makes it easier to fall asleep at night. Plan to walk, bike, do yoga, or any other activity that will give you a cardiovascular workout and pump up your endorphins.
Expose yourself to natural light. This is especially helpful if you do it early in the day as it helps to calibrate the body’s internal circadian clock. Sit in a bright room or outside for a few minutes every day.
Keep those ‘siestas’ short. It’s okay to nap but snooze early in the afternoon, between 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Late and long naps can push back your bedtime and throw your sleep schedule off-kilter. No longer than 30 minutes is recommended for a restorative power nap.
Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine: These are all stimulants that can keep you awake and throw off the natural balance between sleep and wakefulness. If you have trouble sleeping, steer clear of caffeine in the afternoon, including black and green tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, and some chocolate bars. Food labels have all this information. Take the time to read them when in doubt.
Take a melatonin supplement one hour before bedtime. The recommended dose is 20 mg and a sublingual tablet will work faster. It is considered safe for short-term use and to aid with insomnia and jetlag. Other natural options are magnesium, Valerian root, and 5-HTP, which increase serotonin levels. Read up on these and see how they can help you.
Room temperature is key. This could be tricky when you have a partner, so you might need to compromise. If you suffer from hot flashes or are often awakened by heat, look for a cooling mattress topper to help you stay cool. They are designed to lie on top of your mattress, are usually made of latex, cooling fibers, or memory foam, and provide a cooler surface for your body to interact with. There are many on the market and they do the job well.
Shop for the perfect pillow. Research and find an ergonomic pillow that supports your neck properly whether you sleep on your back or on your side. A wedge pillow is also an option to consider; it’s designed to lift your head and shoulders at an angle that helps you breathe better and can reduce snoring.
Consider getting a weighted blanket. They are very effective for both adults and children and the heaviness makes you feel protected and safe. I personally swear by them.
Limit bright screens early in the evening. Children in the developed world spend half of their waking lives looking at a screen. Persuade your whole family to join you in locking your electronic devices away from every bedroom one hour before bedtime.
Avoid drinking too much water or any liquids before bed so you can limit your bathroom visits during the night that can interrupt your slumber.
Turn your alarm clock. If you have a clock on your bedside table to wake you up in the mornings, cover or turn it around so you can’t see the time. If you wake up in the middle of the night, you will be calculating how many hours until you need to get out of bed. This puts unnecessary pressure on you and affects your ability to go back to sleep.
Limit light and noise. Use eye masks to minimize light and sound-canceling earplugs that can interfere with your sleep. Snoring is the most difficult noise to muffle and the worst sleep disrupter. If your spouse or partner snores loudly, the most effective way to solve this is to roll their body over so they sleep on their side. Place a bolster of a thick pillow against their back so they remain in that position through the night. Or look up the “tennis ball trick”: that should do it. Snoring usually occurs when lying on your back because gravity pulls the tissues surrounding your airways downward, making them narrower and more difficult to breathe. This condition can be medically treated once the underlying cause is established.
Plan ahead. If you are jetlagged and just really wide awake, have a plan: pre-download an interesting audiobook, slip in your air pods, and listen to a few chapters. Nothing beats a nice story or book to help you doze off. Try Sapiens by Yuval Harari. It is author-narrated and he has the perfect storyteller voice.
Write. Thoughts and pending to-dos often keep our minds awake and active even after we are tucked in and ready to snooze. Have a pencil and a pad of paper close by to scribble them down so you can unload those thoughts and not be anxious about forgetting them in the morning.
“Sleep that soothes away all our worries. Sleep that puts each day to rest. Sleep that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life’s feast, and the most nourishing.” A paragraph of Macbeth written by William Shakespeare in 1606. Few of us think of him as a cognitive scientist, but, hey, his words remain uncannily close to our truth today.
So remember: your sleep is a vital part of your well-being and physical safety. It’s a gift to yourself. Don’t compromise it.