“Morning is not my friend.”
“I’m dragging…and it’s only 1 p.m.!”
“Ugh. It’s the middle of the night. Why can’t I sleep?”
I’m guessing at least one statement in that bunch is all too familiar—if not all of them. Disruption of nighttime sleep followed by daytime consequences is a vicious cycle for so many. Drop an extra change like this past weekend’s “spring forward” into the mix, and the physical and emotional effects can be consequential.
Why is healthy sleep sometimes so hard to get? The answer to that question may lie in understanding what sleep is (and isn’t!) and why we need it at all. Now, while you’re already working to adjust to Daylight Saving Time, offers a perfect opportunity to explore your personal sleep/wake patterns and habits.
We’ve probably all at some point purposely chosen to get less sleep than usual. When we’re really busy, we might even convince ourselves that we “don’t need” good rest. But as research has shown time and again, that’s not true:
- One study found that response time and overall alertness are suppressed in sleep-deprived individuals as much as in people who are mildly drunk.
- Many modern studies have found direct links between lack of sleep and depression and other emotional disorders.
- Also demonstrated by researchers is a close correlation between too little sleep and damaging physical conditions including obesity, heart disease, and pain-producing inflammation.
The bottom line? Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. If you find your body and mind need more sleep than you’re getting now, that’s just an indication you’re a living human—not a sign of laziness.
But why? What is sleep, anyway?
Sleep isn’t simple rest. It’s a complex restoration cycle that consists of four stages.
Have you ever been unable to read at night because your eyes kept rolling, or you’ve even suddenly dropped your magazine? Chances are, you weren’t just “feeling sleepy”—you’ve actually experienced the first, lightest phase of sleep. Really! The second sleep stage is also light. In this phase, you may experience very convincing sensations of movement or sounds that aren’t there, then suddenly startle awake with a jerk.
Although they aren’t very restorative, those light-sleep phases are important. They allow your body and brain to slowly transition into deeper, more-beneficial layers of rest. So don’t pick up that book you just dropped. Lie down, close your eyes, and embrace the restoration to come.
The third and fourth phases of sleep are what researchers call slow-wave sleep. During these deep stages, only your voluntary muscles are truly at rest. The rest of your body’s systems are busy balancing organ function, removing waste, and repairing daily wear-and-tear of tissues.
Your brain works hardest during the deepest slow-wave phase, the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. Modern sleep studies show that long-term memory as well as the ability to retrieve and use new information develop during slow-wave sleep. Yes, you read that right. Good sleep leads to better thinking!
“I know I need it, but I just can’t sleep.”
Unfortunately, that complaint is not uncommon. If you go to bed with details on your mind, work too-long hours, or are just by nature a worrier, you can bet that stress will reduce your quality of sleep.
What’s more, as we age, our ability to achieve slow-wave sleep decreases. Sleep architecture—the pattern of light and deep-sleep cycling—naturally changes over time. On average, elderly individuals spend their greatest portion of sleep time in stage 1 or 2, with very little in stage 3 or 4. One recent study suggested that REM sleep is virtually non-existent after age 90. Age-related conditions, and the medications used to treat them, can further disturb rest.
So are we destined to be sleep-deprived after age 40? Not at all! Good sleep hygiene—that is, practices that keep the rest environment clear of distraction and encourage restorative sleep—optimizes our chance of getting those ZZZs, regardless of age.
- Set a reasonable bedtime. Count back 7 to 8 hours from your waking time to determine what’s “reasonable.”
- Wind down at least an hour BEFORE that bedtime. Set the stage for a good night by powering down electronics, dimming the lights, and moving more gently. Relax.
- Minimize potential disruptions. Silence your phone and cover low-level lights like those on alarm clocks or chargers. Live in a noisy, bright city? Sleep mask and earplugs to the rescue!
- Keep the room cool. Studies suggest we sleep best at between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Get up at the same time daily—even on weekends. Keep regular, sensible practices in place no matter what day it is.
- Limit late-day liquids. This is a smart practice, especially if you have a history of wakening because “nature calls.”
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. A cup of coffee in the morning is one thing, but in the afternoon, think twice. Caffeine lingers in the bloodstream for many hours. And alcohol may relax you at first, but it can prevent you from later reaching slow-wave sleep.
- De-stress. Consciously, intentionally address tensions and anxieties during waking hours, and you will prevent the emotional build-up that may result in insomnia at night.
The annual changing of clocks can be a challenge, but I encourage you to think of it as part of your seasonal renewal. Take an honest look at your rest habits today. Do they need tweaking? Sleep hygiene is the kind of “spring cleaning” that will reward you. Greater energy, less pain, more emotional stability, and clearer thinking may be just a few, sound, refreshing sleeps away!