I’m going to jump on Arianna Huffington’s sleep train because sleep is glorious and I definitely don’t get enough. So put on some music, grab a mug of chamomile tea, and let’s get some sleep!
My motivation for this post is three-fold: (1) sleep is vital in our lives, (2) sleep is awesome, and (3) good sleep has been rare for me the last couple years. Between depression, anxiety, family drama, and work stress, my sleep quality (and quantity) has suffered greatly. I’ve had insomnia, troubling dreams, nightmares; it got so bad that at one point I was afraid to go to sleep; I would stay up as late as possible so I could pass out immediately after going to bed.
I’m sure most of you know the detriments that follow lack of sleep. So instead, let’s look at sleep’s benefits.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information and advice in this post is general and you should find the techniques that work for you. If you have a medical condition, please see a doctor.
The Benefits of Sleep
- Sleep refreshes us: when we sleep our brain depletes adenosine, a chemical that builds up during the day and makes us sleepy.
- Most of our body’s major restorative functions (such as tissue repair and muscle growth) occur during sleep.
- Sleeping gives our muscles a chance to relax, which relieves tension and chronic pain.
- Sleeping helps prevent fat build-up. Sleep improve carbohydrates and other sugar processing, which prevents our body from turning them into fat. It also lowers carb cravings and decreases the risk of diabetes.
- Sleep cleans the brain; it washes away cell waste and toxic proteins that can lead to dementia.
- When we sleep, our brain consolidates what we learned throughout the day, and incorporates this with information and experiences we already know. This allows us to retain more information and remember it better.
- Sleep preserves our most important memories, especially emotional ones (this was one of the many brain functions depicted in Inside Out).
- Sleep replays memories from our day and reconfirms the order they occurred, which helps us keep our chronology straight.
- Sleep, or specifically the dreams we have while sleeping, highlight daily anxieties, helping us control our actions and emotions. For example: dreaming about past events helps our brain learn from them, and dreaming about future worries helps us to prepare for them should they occur in real life.
The Science of Sleep
The first two stages of sleep are called NREM, or non-REM sleep. Stage 1 is the transition from awakened/drowsy to sleep. Stage 2 is light sleep, where your heart rate slows and body temperature decreases. If you are taking a power nap, the end of stage 2 (about 20 minutes after falling asleep) is when you want to wake up.
In addition to Stages 1 and 2 are the primary stages of deep sleep: Slow Wave (stages 3 and 4) and Rapid Eye Movement, also known as REM (stage 5). After falling asleep, it generally takes about 90 minutes to enter the REM stage (this is shown between midnight and 0130 in the chart below). Once REM is reached, REM and Slow Wave combine to form sleep cycles that last around 90 minutes, as shown between 0130 and 0300 below. The number of sleep cycles we have each night is determined by the length of our uninterrupted sleep.
Waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle leaves us groggy, therefore it is ideal to wake up between cycles (after 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep). If you’ve ever wondered why you sometimes feel great when you wake up and other times you don’t, this is one of the reasons.
Here is a five-minute animation that explains all this:
So, how much sleep do you really need, and are you getting it? To answer these questions, The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) is here to help:
For most adults, the recommended hours are between 7 and 9, for children/teenagers more is recommended and for the elderly slightly less. Unfortunately, the number of hours a specific individual needs is harder to pin down. To help find the amount of sleep you personally need, NSF provides these questions:
- Are you productive, healthy, and happy on seven hours of sleep? Or does it take you nine hours to get to high gear?
- Are you experiencing sleep problems? Do you feel sleepy when driving? Do you need caffeine to get you through the day? If any of these are true, you need more sleep!
Why is Sleep Such a Hot Topic Right Now?
The answer to this one is simple: we don’t get enough of it, especially in the US. And the detriments of lack of sleep are numerous: memory problems, drowsiness, weakened immune system, increased pain perception, depression…
According to a 2009 CDC study, 35% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night. In addition to this, 38% have unintentionally fallen asleep at least once in the previous month, and 5% have nodded off while driving at least once during that same time period. A 2005-2007 National Institute of Health survey (cited in the CDC article above) supports these findings; in their survey nearly 30% of US adults reported an average of six or less hours of sleep per night.
Also, for those who oversleep (something I love to do!), know that that can be bad as well.
Sleep and the Workplace
Our society has this idea that working so hard that you don’t get enough sleep is something to be proud of, that it is a good thing. How many times have you heard someone brag about working so late that he/she only got four hours of sleep (or less)? I was like that, especially in college. Now I think that’s crazy. Now if I talk about not getting enough sleep, it’s only to explain why I’m tired or why I’m going to bed so early. It’s not to brag.
Thankfully, employers and employees are starting to understand the importance of sleep and its relation to productivity. Some truly innovative companies are even providing nap areas at work. Here are some ways quality sleep helps you professionally:
So, What Can We Do To Improve Our Sleep Habits?
We can do lots of things! Here are some to try:
- Change the color of your bedroom walls. Blues, greens, and yellows – all in matte – are best for sleep.
- Remove electronic devices and eliminate light. Stay away from bright screens (ie your smartphone) once the bedroom lights are out.
- Control the sound in your bedroom: play music, use a white-noise machine, wear earplugs, listen to calm.com.
- Clean the air in your bedroom. Purifiers and indoor plants do this well
- Use lavender scented aromatherapy. Studies have shown that the lavender scent slows down heart rates and lowers blood pressure, putting us in a more relaxed state.
- Drink herbal tea, and don’t have caffeine within six hours of sleep.
- Adjust your eating habits: avoid heavy meals and alcohol close to bedtime. For late night snacks try almonds, milk, bananas, and whole grain crackers.
- Take deep breaths. Calm your body, muscles, and mind. Nighttime meditation can help with this.
- Create a consistent sleep schedule (when to go to bed, when to wake up) and stick to it.
- Keep your bed for sleeping (and sex!) only. Also keep your bedroom between 60 and 67oF.
- Exercise, but only at least several hours before sleep (it’s hard to sleep when your adrenaline is pumping).
- During the day, go outside as much as possible. Lack of exposure to daylight disrupts our biological clocks.
- Take a warm bath or shower before going to sleep.
- Find the right mattress. Soft, firm, coiled, posturized? If these terms are confusing, here is a guide.
- Pillows also makes a huge difference. Find the one that is right for you.
- If you are cold put on a pair of socks (a lot of body heat lost is through the feet). Conversely, if you are warm, stick your feet out from under your blanket.
- If the air is too dry, use a fan or a humidifier, or open your windows. If the air is too humid, use cotton sheets and a dehumidifier.
- If you have allergies, make sure you vacuum with HEPA filters. If that isn’t enough, try a hypoallergenic mattress and pillow cover.
- If your mind constantly races when you try to sleep, try processing your thoughts beforehand. Write them down, talk about them, even just thinking about them before bedtime can help. If you’re already in bed when your mind starts racing, talking and writing can still help.
20. More Resources for Better Sleep
In my research, I came across a lot of great websites. Check these out if you’re interested in more in-depth information.
- The Sleep Foundation’s main and educational sister site
- WebMD‘s sleep section
- An interactive jet-lag timeline
- Sleepti.me, an online app that calculates when you should go to sleep based when you need to wake up (and vice versa).
- And a sleepiness quiz!
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