Let’s talk about sleep.
Something we all wish we could get more of and yet, we somehow never get around to it. We wake up groggy, pop a couple shots of espresso to get us through the day, and when the time comes at the end of the day to try and catch up on that sleep what do we do? Watch the new Game of Thrones episode, American Idol, Facebook, or go downtown. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t relax and enjoy these things, but stop sacrificing one of the most important bodily functions just for some extra entertainment. There is a time and place for these things and 8 hours before you have to get up the next day is not it. (And don’t get me started on kids popping addy’s and energy drinks at 10 o’clock at night.)
What does it do for the body? Why is it so important?
Mentally, when we sleep our brain is solidifying the things we learned that day (this includes muscle memory), while preparing itself for more information the next day. This process is called consolidation. Our brain creates new synapses (think of it as building bridges) to this information to allow for better recollection of it. Once this information has been consolidated, the brain is now able to more easily learn new information. Without enough sleep, our minds are fighting over remembering information from the previous day and learning new information.
Physically, sleep allows our body to heal itself. Sleep is very important for growth, whether that’s a 5 year-old still growing or someone’s muscles repairing from exercise. The body creates it’s own growth hormones that stimulate this growth and repair while we sleep (so instead of taking HGH, how about you just get some more sleep). It is also important for our immune system. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to get sick because their immune system is weaker.
How much do we actually need?
Different people need different amounts of sleep. You’re not Donald Trump or one of those famous CEO’s that gets by on 4 hours a night, so don’t fool yourself into thinking so. A study published in 2015 by the National Sleep Foundation goes into detail on how much people actually need. And of course it’s not straight forward, but it gives us a starting place. For adults (26-64 years-old) and young adults (18-25 years-old), the foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep a night. From there we need to start listening to our body.
Physical activity is a big factor in the amount of sleep we need. At the beginning of the year I injured my back and had to stop working out for a while. During this time I was consistently getting 5-6 hours of sleep per night and feeling relatively upbeat and awake throughout the day. However, once I started working out again at my usual intensity level it felt like 8 hours wasn’t even enough to cure my heavy eyelids and constant yawning. So pay attention to how your body is feeling and adjust your sleep schedule accordingly.
How do we fix our problem.
The number one thing is to make sleep a priority! Very few things should be more important than you getting a good night’s sleep. Want to be less stressed? Get some more sleep. Want to build muscle and lose fat? Get some more sleep. Want to be more productive and happier during the day? You get the idea, get some more sleep!
It’s hard to control exactly how much we sleep every night. We can build up these patterns and try to go to sleep and wake up at a consistent time, but there will always be things out of our control and to fight that will cause us unnecessary amounts of stress. So even if we can’t always control the amount of sleep we get we can still control the quality.
Start doing these things to help you fall asleep and get better sleep.
- Get into a schedule. Your body is built for routines. Start going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. To really get into this habit, for one week set an alarm or reminder to go off an hour before you need to be asleep. When that alarm goes off, stop whatever you’re doing and get ready for bed.
- Have a ritual. When you have a consistent ritual before you go to bed your body will begin listening for it. Once it recognizes you are doing that action it knows it’s time to start shutting down. This ritual can be anything that is relaxing for you. Read a book, roll out on a foam roller, meditate. Just anything that will slow down your heart rate, not speed it up.
- Crank up the AC. Your body temperature actually drops when you sleep and this helps facilitate that process. The ideal temperature range is 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Go dark. The room should be as dark as possible. Look into getting some blackout curtains. If that’s not possible or you are traveling, look at investing in a good sleep mask.
- Go quiet. The room should be quiet. If sleeping in dead silence gives you a panic attack (like it does to my fiance), then that will definitely hinder your sleep more so than noise so keep that noise maker on. But the main thing is that there’s not loud or random noises. I believe a consistent white noise or possibly even a fan are fine. However, if that noise stops in the middle of the night that change in sound will probably wake you up, so just be aware of that.
- Shutdown electronics. The bright light emitted from most electronic devices (cell phone, laptop, TV) actually stimulates your brain and will make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Avoid caffeine. Studies have shown that caffeine consumed as early as 6 hours before going to bed can have negative affects on sleep. Make sure you keep that in mind when scheduling your sleep.
So, this is a lot to take in, and it’s probably impossible to do all these things at once. You can turn down your AC and start sleeping in a darker, quieter room, but setting up a new schedule, building a ritual before bed, shutting off electronics before getting in bed, these things will all take some time to get accustomed to. Work on setting a schedule for when you need to be in bed and when you need to get up. After that, start building a ritual before you go to bed. I recommend reading a fiction book, something that allows your mind to slow down and let go rather than give you more things to think about. And in building the ritual, you will typically make the electronics issue obsolete because you won’t be doing that before you go to bed anyways.
Oh yeah, you remember that thing called a night cap? Well, quit it! It may help you to fall asleep but it’s actually causing you to get less ‘restful’ sleep. Basically it neutralizes all the benefits of a good night’s sleep so you end up exacerbating the issue you were trying to fix in the first place.
Now it’s time for you to take action. You want to take control of your life? This is where it starts. Don’t let anyone or anything push you out of your schedule. This is your time, everything else can wait!
If you want to learn more about sleep and how it ties in to your every day life, check out The Sleep Foundation and www.Sleep.org. They have articles, studies, and anything else you need to know about sleep.