Ah, sleep. That miniature coma we indulge in when reality becomes too tiresome to endure. It’s essentially the “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” of life.
The health negatives of not getting enough sleep are serious. Research has found risk associations between short sleep and hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia. Sleeping less than six hours a night is associated with a 20% higher chance of heart attack.
Research shows two weeks of sleeping six hours a night is the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk. It’s like some twisted game show where the prize is a slow descent into mediocrity. Sleep deprivation impairs cognition, memory, and attention. And attention spans these days are already shorter than a Hollywood marriage, so you don’t wanna make it worse. Studies show when students in the top 10 percent of their class are restricted to under seven hours of sleep a night, they perform like students in the bottom 10 percent.
And if that’s not enough for you, being tired actually makes it harder to be happy. One of the key functions of REM sleep is the processing of emotional memories. When you don’t get enough REM sleep it can reach the equivalent of PTSD – you’re unable to separate memories from emotions. It’s like someone put all the feelings in a blender, hit “puree,” and poured the resulting slurry directly into your skull.
And if none of this convinces you, I’ll appeal to your vanity: there is such a thing as beauty sleep. Not getting enough shut eye makes you less attractive.
Ready to do something about it? Let’s pull the covers off the world of sleep and do an exhaustive examination of the subject. We’ll draw from four books: “Sleep: A Very Short Introduction”, “The Mystery of Sleep”, “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity”, and “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.”
Let’s get to it…
Our bodies demand a daily eight-hour sabbatical from existence. The National Sleep Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend 7 to 9 hours — but neuroscientist Matt Walker says after 10 days of 7 hours your brain is mush whether you realize it or not. So get 8. How much sleep do kids need? We have a clear answer here: as much as possible.
After a truly good night’s sleep, you should feel alert shortly after waking up and your mood should be positive. Boredom should not cause sleepiness if you’re well rested. If you feel a strong desire for a nap or doze off while reading, you’re not sleeping well enough.
Side note: chronotypes are real – being a night owl or an early riser is at least partly genetic. You’ll struggle if you fight your body’s natural schedule.
So if you’re only going to do one thing to improve your nightly slumber, what should it be?
Matt Walker says a consistent sleep schedule is the single most important thing. Go to bed at the same time every night. Wake up at the same time every day. Yes, weekends too.
Don’t just set an alarm to wake up — set an alarm for bedtime. Build yourself a good pre-sleep routine where you wind down at the same time every night. (If you can get someone to read you a bedtime story, all the better.)
And you’re not supposed to use your bed for anything other than sleep or sex. (I don’t know about you, but that’s quite a tall order for someone who uses their bed as a dining table, an office, and occasionally, a metaphysical escape pod from the rigors of adulting.)
So what if you know you’re going to be burning the midnight oil over the next few days? Research shows getting extra sleep shortly before an anticipated episode of sleep deprivation can help.
Okay, time to discuss all the stuff you put in your mouth that can monkey with sleep…
No, alcohol doesn’t help you sleep. What it does is actually more akin to anesthesia, which is not “real” sleep. And because it’s not the real deal, your brain can’t do its memory consolidation work properly. Alcohol makes it harder to learn and retain new information.
Want optimal sleep? Don’t drink booze. Period. Researchers think alcohol impairs good sleep more than any other factor we can control. If you absolutely must have some, make it one drink before 6PM. (I didn’t intend to recommend day drinking, but here we are.)
They hit the same receptors in your brain as alcohol, so you get the same results — except their effects on memory are even worse. I’m sure this is going to get me hate mail from Ambien lovers. Emails they won’t remember sending, that is.
Ironically, research shows sleeping pills aren’t terribly effective either. Yeah, much of it is the placebo effect.
Occasional use is okay. Studies show Trazodone is preferable and has fewer negative effects. But talk to your doctor first — obviously.
That wonderful stuff that allows me to form coherent sentences before noon. The important thing to keep in mind here is that the half-life of caffeine is up to six hours. If you have a double espresso at 4PM that means you have an entire shot of espresso in your bloodstream at 10PM. So if you want the best sleep possible, only use caffeine in the morning or early afternoon.
Decaf isn’t really decaf. It actually contains 15-30% of the caffeine of a regular cup of coffee. So if you drink three cups of decaf after dinner, well, don’t be surprised if you’re staring at the ceiling at 2AM. (To learn more about the science of coffee, click here.)
If you’re like me, you won’t be quitting caffeine any time soon so what’s the best way to use it? “Little and often” is the trick. Big doses don’t provide much bigger benefits. Opt for one cup of tea, weak coffee or soda every 2 hours. It’s best to have your last dose 10 hours before bed.
Don’t eat anything less than three hours before bedtime—and ideally longer.
Mattress quality doesn’t matter. And if your partner snores, get them to do something about it. Nobody needs to be serenaded nightly by the sound of a congested walrus.
Now you’ve probably heard blue light before bed is bad. But that’s wrong…
All light before bed is bad. Blue is just worse. That sleep hormone melatonin doesn’t just immediately flood your system when you flip the light switch off. It takes time. So dim the lights long before you’re ready to hit the sack.
The sleep gurus will tell you: “You should avoid screens before bedtime.” Well, I’m sorry, but I live in the 21st century, where avoiding screens is like avoiding oxygen. It’s the same as someone from the 15th century being advised to avoid parchment or quills before bedtime. But, sadly… the gurus are right. Put the phone away two hours before bed.
News, work email, and social media (where everyone is screaming for attention and no one is actually listening) is double bad before bed because you don’t want anything that’s going to get you worked up.
Some of this may seem obvious. So what don’t we hear enough about when it comes to communing with the Sandman?
Your body wants its core temperature low when you sleep. So it’s gotta dump all that heat you’re producing. This is why you often see people’s feet or arms sticking out from under the covers: unconscious heat regulation.
Keep your bedroom nice and cool, preferably around sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit. For super sleep, take a hot bath before bed. It doesn’t just relax you; it dilates blood vessels, allowing your body to ditch all that extra core warmth. This can boost NREM sleep by up to 15%.
Exercise definitely improves sleep but you don’t want to do it within 3 hours of bedtime because — guess what? It raises your core temperature.
And now it’s time to discuss something glorious. That splendid intermission in the daily theater of life, the pit stop in the grand prix of consciousness, the pause button in the action movie that is existence. You know, the tiny vacation your brain takes when it decides it’s had enough of you…
They’re like a protest against the manic pace of life, a small mutiny against the tyranny of adulthood. Acts of personal revolution, miniature vacations from reality, oases of quiet in the chaos of life. (Yes, I like naps.)
But naps are a double-edged sword. Too late or too long and you might have trouble passing out at your regular bedtime – and we know a consistent sleep schedule is important.
There’s a peculiar alchemy in the timing of naps. If you hit the sweet spot, you awake feeling reborn. Miss it, and It’s like your body has just performed a system reboot and the operating system is still loading. Definitely aim for under 45 minutes — or if you’re really sleep deprived, 90-120 minutes. Anything in between is likely to give you that groggy feeling of “sleep inertia.”
Some research says the best naps are 10 minutes long but no nap is too short. A 2008 study showed that even a nap of a few minutes provided benefits. Heck, just anticipating a nap lowers blood pressure. If you’re a morning person, the best time to nap is around 1 or 1:30PM. If you’re a night owl, nap later, around 2:30 or 3PM.
Please set an alarm. You don’t want to pull a “Rip Van Winkle” – when you intend to take a 20-minute power nap and wake up seven hours later wondering what year it is. You check your phone, half expecting to see messages from your grandkids asking why you missed their high school graduation. To make sure you’re productive after your nap, drink a cup of coffee right before laying down. Caffeine takes about 20-30 minutes to kick in. You’ll wake up ready to go.
Okay, sleepyhead, time to round it all up. And we’ll learn the best ways to defeat the monster called insomnia…
Here’s how to get the best sleep of your life:
It starts innocently enough. You slide into bed, all fresh and cozy, a human burrito of hope. You close your eyes and wait for the sleep fairy to come along and sprinkle you with dream dust. But instead, insomnia’s got plans and you’re part of them.
This is usually when your brain decides that it’s the perfect time for an impromptu screening of “Every Awkward Moment of Your Life: The Director’s Cut.”
You’ve bathed in chamomile tea and tried every sleep meditation app till the sound of a calming voice makes you want to throw your phone across the room. Warm milk? Tastes like heated-up regret. Oh, count sheep. Like organizing a phantom livestock census at 3 AM is gonna help?
What’s the secret here? Don’t fight it. Get out of bed and do something relaxing and boring. Don’t do anything productive or you’re training your brain that being up at this hour has a purpose.
If the insomnia recurs, try “sleep restriction.” Only able to sleep 6 hours a night continuously? Then restrict yourself to 5. You’ll feel like poop the next day and crash hard… And that night only let yourself sleep 5 hours and 15 minutes. Now you feel like double poop and will be out before your head hits the pillow. So go to 5 hours and 30 minutes… And as long as you sleep through the night, incrementally increase the amount of sleep you allow yourself. No naps. Studies show sleep restriction is more effective than medication.
One final tip for great sleep overall?
Give yourself permission to get more sleep. This is critical and doesn’t get enough attention. Admit that sleep is important and be willing to make sacrifices in order to get it.
Please give these tips a shot and get that sweet, delicious taste of oblivion tonight. As someone who’s spent most of his life battling the treacherous beast known as “waking hours” I swear it can make all the difference in the world.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a flock of sheep to audit.