Your sleep called. It misses you.
How can we forget? We spend a quarter of our lives asleep! And for good reasons.
Depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, weak intellect, poor memory, false hunger cravings, crabbiness – the list paints a horrifying image of our lives without proper sleep!
Are you on the fast track to the above-mentioned ailments? That depends… how much sleep do you get? We’ve all heard mixed information regarding how much sleep we actually need. Is it 5, 6, 12 hours? Is there even a one-size-fits-all answer?
Well, according to various sleep experts (which apparently exists as a real career), there’s no easy answer to that question. A vast majority agree, however, that variation in sleep requirements is judged by age-group and daily exertion – mental or physical.
That’s kind of obvious though, right? We all know that if we work our tail off throughout the day, we need more recovery time!
As for age variation, we know deep down that we don’t need to sleep as much as an infant. Even if that would be nice sometimes. But for those of us who’ve survived the awkwardness of puberty (generally speaking), there’s one very important number to remember: 8. When in doubt, it’s always 8. At least when we’re talking about sleep!
Through all the variations in sleep times, the average – so that we don’t get too little or too much – is the good ole 8 hour sleep cycle.
But, haven’t we all heard that as we get older we need less sleep? Well, that one is actually a subject of debate. Used to, scientists believed that 6 hours was plenty for anyone age 26+.
Now, that number is on the bottom end of “enough.”
What does that mean for your health? Well, you may have “enough” energy for the day. You may also have a mood that’s stable “enough.” Or be physically fit “enough.” You get the point! While on the losing side of the sleep range, you may feel a ghost of the symptoms of sleep deprivation as they develop. Some people even adjust to this feeling over time, and that’s what they define as “normal.”
Well, let’s go ahead and look over a few signs that you’re only feeling well “enough” from your sleep. (Keep in mind: if you do get sufficient hours of sleep, many of these signs or symptoms may indicate low quality sleep due to poor choices made throughout the day).
- Do you wake up groggy?
- Do you need coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc. to feel awake?
- Does it take you more than twenty minutes to feel fully alert?
- Do you “sleep in” on days off from work?
- Are you a snooze-button person?
- Do you have excessively dry eyes/throat, or excessive mucus in the throat or eyes upon waking?
- Is the shower the only thing keeping you awake?
- Does your sleep call you and tell you it “misses you?”
Okay, the last one was a joke – but, numbers 1-7 are legitimate signs that you are getting poor or insufficient sleep. If you experience these problems, and you get less than 8 hours of sleep a night, it might very well be time to make some life changes! (Keep in mind, however, that if you do expend extreme amounts of energy through the day, it’s possible you simply need to add an hour of sleep to your night! If you’re one of those hard-workers, shoot for a 9-hour sleep cycle. It can work wonders on your stress levels!)
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
According to the National Institutes of Health, when we lose sleep we have:
Poor memory, short attention spans, volatile emotions, inability to cope with change, low workplace productivity, high blood pressure, poor creativity, insulin resistance, False hunger cravings, slow muscle recovery, and weakened immunity.
Even worse, we have a heightened risk of developing: Infertility, depression, heart disease, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and stroke.
And so, we open ourselves up to an incredible amount of disease and discomfort when we neglect our sleep. But the news only gets worse!
If we lose one hour of sleep a night, we build up what’s called a “sleep debt.” What that means, in simple terms, is that our bodies remember that hour of sleep we lost, and if we were to constantly get, for example, 7 hours of sleep a night, we end up with a 7 hour sleep debt at the end of the week. It seems our sleep holds grudges as well!
Unfortunately, our sleep debt can’t be napped off. Similarly, we can’t just make up for the sleep later. Sleep doesn’t forgive and doesn’t forget. In fact, sleeping excessively to attempt to recover from deprivation only worsens ones condition – throwing the delicate sleep-wake cycle out of balance! This can lead to: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and daytime fatigue.
So, here’s what we can do:
- Ensure yourself at least 8 hours of sleep a night.
- Avoid negatively affecting your sleep quality.
Wait a second. Sleep quality?
That’s right! Not only is it important to get the proper amount – you also need good sleep! So, what differentiates the good from the bad? Well, it’s easiest to exemplify three types of poor sleep:
- Excessively light sleep. This is a night of tossing and turning in your covers. The tiniest noise brings you to alertness. You have short, uncomfortable dreams, ending with you momentarily waking, then falling back asleep. If you’ve ever overdone it with caffeine, you’ll be familiar with this type of sleep imbalance.
- Violent, uncomfortable, anxious dreams – or worse, nightmares. This type of sleep needs no explanation. We’ve all had it, and it leaves you feeling terrible. Also falling into this category is excessively “hot” sleep, wherein one sweats and exhausts themselves overnight. Keep in mind, eating right before bed is the best way to bring on the nightmares and sweats.
- Excessively deep sleep. This kind of sleep is like a dark tunnel. You lay down, everything goes black, and then the alarm goes off in the morning. A trademark of this category is the feeling that the night lasted a long time, but you not remembering any dreams vividly. Many consider this type of sleep normal – however, it’s not balanced sleep, and can leave you feeling heavy and fatigued during the day.
We find that a balanced night of sleep doesn’t fall into any of the three categories. You should awaken feeling refreshed, recovered, and in a positive mood. Balanced sleep is uninterrupted, with no uncomfortable dreams.
Sounds great, right? There are some things we can do to reach that goal!
This is especially important for those of us who absolutely cannot find the time to get the proper amount of sleep. We can reduce, though not eliminate, the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Don’t worry! If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be on your way to beautiful, restful sleep.
- The time of the day that you “hit the sack” is incredibly important! Melatonin is your sleep hormone, and its release is primarily activated by the eyes sensing darkness. At dusk, the amount of melatonin in your system increases significantly, and you experience the sensation of sleepiness. That’s not all: melatonin and your natural sleep cycle trigger all sorts of healing and body maintenance. If our bodies says it’s time for bed, who are we to argue? Just another reason to be an “early to bed, early to rise” kind of person! Tip: if your body’s internal “clock” is off time, and you typically go to bed at a later time, consider slowly adjusting your sleep schedule to ease yourself into it (maybe an hour earlier per day).
- Water! You know how important that is, right? Well, when it comes time for bed, you’ll want to be hydrated, but not water-logged. In other words, drinking a small but sufficient amount of water directly before bed is great – however, drink too much and you’ll be waking up to visit the bathroom. Ever had the “searching for a toilet” dream? Uncomfortable, to be sure. Keep in mind, waking to visit the bathroom is disruptive to your sleep cycle, and can lead to poorer quality rest.
- Dinner time has an impact on your sleep as well. Most people have heard the advice about eating right before bed and experiencing nightmares – however, did you know that insufficient digestion time after eating dinner can lead to restlessness, anxious dreams, and an altered sleep cycle? This is also the fast-track to indigestion! Digestion is best left for the times that we’re awake! Give yourself 2-4 hours after dinner before sleep, depending on your personal digestive strength.
- Alcohol. This one is important! While many people use alcoholic beverages to aid them in falling asleep, it’s important to note that it greatly affects your sleep cycle, and can disrupt nighttime repair and cellular maintenance. If you feel dependent on alcohol to ease you into sleep, follow the above steps to better sleep quality, and consider…
- Supplements – herbal or otherwise. There are some good formulas out there that can help with minor sleep issues. The two I see many people have the most success with are this one and this one. It’s best, however, to only use these temporarily while you’re working on fixing the cause of your poor sleep.
- Electronics. While many of us love to spend our leisure time watching television, playing with our phones, or entertaining ourselves on the internet, there’s a good reason to avoid these things when it’s close to bedtime! Electronic device screens (whether television, phone, computer monitor or whatever) put off large amounts of what scientists call “blue light.” This very same blue light is what activates our alertness and wakefulness during the day, and prevents the secretion of our sleep hormone melatonin. Optimally (though I personally find it difficult), it is best to avoid device usage after dusk. Since that’s asking a lot, try avoiding device usage up to an hour before bed. This gives time for proper melatonin function. Try replacing the electronics habit with a book habit, or whatever else you enjoy to do in your free time!
- Make a “routine” out of bedtime. When it comes time to sleep, have a set list of good habits you perform before hitting the hay. For some people, this can include: stretching, cleaning up the day’s messes, brushing teeth, general hygiene, etc.. By doing this, you are mentally preparing for your beauty sleep, making the act of falling asleep easier, more comfortable, and thusly more profitable.
If you’re someone who’s neglected your sleep cycle and has developed negative habits, don’t stress about following every step in this guide all at once. Correcting one or two habits at a time will set you on the right path! Some tips I’ve discussed here can require moderate changes to your lifestyle – in this case, you may need to weigh the stress of the change against the effects of sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality.
For myself, the lifestyle changes are the easiest for me to live with. Having experienced excellent sleep and terrible sleep, both for extended periods, I can honestly say it’s worth it!
Old, young, healthy – everyone can benefit from top notch sleep! So, start small, make some changes, and experience that feeling of restfulness, rejuvenation and recovery we all want from this crucial need of our bodies – get back to basics, and sleep well again!
(Information sourced from National Institutes for Health’s Center for Biological Information resource [NIH/NCBI], and the National Library of Medicine, based in Bethesda, Maryland)
Colten, Harvey R., and Bruce M. Altevogt, et al. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine, 2006. Print. (Collaborative Research)