I have to admit something—I don’t sleep. Okay, I sleep, but it’s not nearly enough. I’m lucky if I get seven hours a night, and on the weekends? Let’s just say the number decreases significantly. Judging by the long lines at the sixteen Starbucks I pass on my way to work, I’m not alone.
Work, stress, and social lives all wreak havoc on our precious sleep cycles. The majority of us are not only lacking necessary sleep hours, but the quality of our sleep leaves something to be desired. Hoping to curb my morning grogginess and mid-afternoon drowsiness, I consulted two professional sleep experts to find out how we can achieve the best kind of sleep—sleep that leaves us feeling rested, alert, and not so dependent on caffeine.
Figure out your perfect number.
The oft-quoted “eight hours a night” is a rule not unlike “eight glasses of water a day”—good in theory, but too general. The amount of sleep one needs varies from person to person. “There is no magic number that works for everybody,” says Dr. Tracy Kuo, a clinical psychiatrist and sleep disorder specialist at Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic. “As an individual, you need to figure out what your sleep need is.” However, most doctors recommend getting somewhere between seven to eight hours of sleep. Dr. Kenneth Weeks, a cardiologist specializing in sleep disorders and their association with heart problems, suggests shooting for seven-and-a-half hours a night. A good night’s sleep means we can function with a steady, healthy level of energy throughout the next day (with no 4 p.m. lethargy), so find the amount of hours that allows you to achieve this state.
Make sleep a priority.
Both Dr. Kuo and Dr. Weeks concur that most of us don’t realize the importance of sleep, and they caution that this is one of the worst mistakes we make. “A challenge we all face in modern life is valuing sleep enough,” Dr. Kuo explains. “Most people take time away from sleep to do things, so they’re not letting themselves get enough sleep.” Sleep restriction has been linked to many problems including mood disorders like depression and anxiety, weight gain, and a shorter life expectancy. According to Dr. Weeks, a lack of sleep hurts the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. Just as we have to make time for health-improving and preventative activities like exercise and eating well, we should make sure to incorporate an adequate amount of sleep into our schedules, too.
Limit eating and exercise prior to bedtime.
Eating a heavy meal or working out too close to bedtime can cause a poor quality of sleep because both lead to sleep fragmentation (waking up throughout the night). Dr. Kuo advises that people “need to have enough time for that activation level [caused by exercise] to decrease so that sleep is permitted.” Both Kuo and Weeks recommend eating or exercising no closer than three to four hours before sleeping.
Unfortunately, hectic schedules sometimes demand that our meal times and gym sessions occur later at night. And, as Dr. Kuo says, “If you go to bed starving, you’re not going to go to sleep either.” Try relaxing as much as possible after working out; lay down, take deep breaths, and focus on cooling down your body temperature. As for midnight snack attacks, Dr. Weeks recommends eating something “that dissolves quickly and won’t sit in the stomach.” He lists warm milk and crackers with a little peanut butter as good options.
Pinpoint the negative effects.
The best way to figure out whether or not we’re getting all the sleep we need is to figure out how a lack of sleep is really affecting our lives. If we don’t recognize the problems, we probably won’t act on the cause. If feeling tired in the afternoon is an everyday occurrence, if caffeine is a necessity, if you fall asleep within five minutes of your head hitting the pillow, you need more sleep!These are not healthy ways to go through the day, but we fail to recognize them as serious consequences because they have become part of our everyday realities. “People often say, ‘Oh, sleep is sleep,’ but sleep is life-saving. It’s restorative,” Dr. Weeks says. It’s wholly necessary for our physical health and mental well-being, but it’s also one of the things we take for granted the most. Think about this—when was the last time you woke up feeling ready to go, and maintained that alert feeling throughout the day? Chase that feeling; it’s a good one.
Say no to naps.
Naps seem like a great way to catch up on lost sleep—plus, who doesn’t love a good mid-afternoon snooze? Sadly, relying on naps too much can only exacerbate the problem of nighttime sleep withdrawal. “Power naps are okay once in a while,” Dr. Weeks relents, but he advises minimizing them to no more than thirty minutes. People who nap longer than thirty minutes often fall into the deep sleep phases, which can lead to grogginess upon waking instead of the restful, wakeful state that was our intention with the nap. It is possible to catch up on sleep, but instead of napping after a late night or all-nighter, we should instead focus on getting a little more sleep over time. “If you allow yourself a little more opportunity to sleep, in about six to eight weeks, you can wipe out your sleep debt.” It seems like a lengthy process, but it is the best way for our body to recover from a lack of sleep, and, unlike naps, it will improve the flow of our sleep cycle.
Create an optimal sleep setting.
There’s a reason why most of us start to feel drowsy as it turns to night. When our eyes see the skies begin to darken, it signals the pineal gland to leak melatonin into the brain, which brings about yawning and grogginess. That’s why a dark room is often recommended for a restful night. Use wave machines or listen to soothing music to block out street traffic, but don’t fall asleep to the TV—that can lead to sleep fragmentation. Dr. Weeks also suggests keeping business and work out of the bedroom. “Use the bedroom for only romance and sleep,” he says.
Part of keeping work separate from our sleeping area means blocking out anxieties and worries, too. They can cause fitful sleep and nightmares, so try not to think of them prior to bed. However, since that’s almost impossible for most people, Freud might have a better solution. “Freud showed evidence that if you move [anxieties] physically, it’ll move them out of your brain,” Dr. Weeks explains. He suggests writing worries down on a piece of paper and moving it outside of the room, or at least to the bedside table. Wherever it’s moved to, your anxieties will hopefully be moved away from your thoughts and dreams.
It seems like lacking sleep is a source of pride within industrial countries like the United States. If we’re losing sleep, that supposedly means we’re being more productive and efficient. The truth is that our bodies and minds become much less efficient the more we deprive ourselves of sleep. Learning to recognize and combat the daily consequences can help us avoid the more serious, long-term effects such as depression and weight gain. Getting the best quality of sleep possible will help us ensure an overall better quality of life.
Updated December 24, 2009