We all do it, and we are completely lost without it: sleep. That seven to nine hours in which you lay in bed are much more important than you may realize. Most of us never ask ourselves why we sleep, we just accept it as part of life.
For those interested in learning what we know about Why We Sleep give Mathew Walker’s book by that name read. It will put you to sleep – in a good way. It is a great read for anyone that is even mildly interested in the science of sleep and a great resource for how you can optimize yours.
Sleeping regularly is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Your body needs seven to nine hours of sleep a night to process the information you received during the day and to repair the damage caused by living a day in the life of a human
The power of sleep
All mammals – and most other animals – sleep in one way or another. Sleep is one of the oldest evolutionary characteristics shared by complex organisms. Natural selection doesn’t waste energy, so sleep would not have been selected for if it wasn’t important.
Whether you got enough sleep or not has a direct impact on your day and contrary to popular belief, you can’t catch it up later. If your brain has not processed that day’s memories that night, they will not be processed on another night so whatever you were trying to learn or remember will be gone – forever.
This is particularly important for anyone studying. Many students will stay up late cramming the night before an exam to try to give themselves an edge. The sad reality is: they would perform much better on their test if they had reviewed their material once and then had a full night’s sleep.
One of the things that sleep influences is your immune system. It has been shown to directly impact the effectiveness of vaccines. The effectiveness of the vaccine is directly related to the amount of sleep you got the following few nights. Adequate sleep will optimize its effectiveness while inadequate sleep could put you at risk, especially if you are getting a travel vaccination in preparation for a trip.
There will always be things that prevent you from getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep but you can and should aim to get a full night of sleep as frequently as possible as the consequences can be devastating.
Dangers of insufficient sleep
Insufficient sleep impairs your cognitive abilities and makes you less of a good person. We have all felt what it’s like to not get enough sleep. It sucks. You are grumpy all day and just want to find a quiet place to rest your head. Your body knows it’s missing something and it’s not hiding it.
While being grumpy and tired is more of an inconvenience than anything else, it becomes a real hazard when you get behind the steering wheel of a car. Driving after being awake for more than 18 hours is the equivalent of being legally drunk while driving. Furthermore, driving after a night with only six hours of sleep increases your chances of an accident by 30 %¹.
The reality is worse than the numbers. If you drive drunk, you will be slow to react to sudden changes, but you will probably still react in some way. Conversely, if you drive tired, you may not react to a sudden change at all; the reason for this is because of microsleeps. During these microsleeps, you will not react to anything because you will be unaware of the sudden occurrence.
Drinking and sleeplessness compound, but not in a good way like compounding your habits. Instead, they make each other worse, even if limit your drinking and remain under the legal blood alcohol limit you may still be heavily impaired if you have been awake for a long time and have had any alcohol. There is a way to avoid all these dire conditions: sleep.
How to sleep like a baby
There are many things you can do to improve your sleep quality but after-dinner espressos, nightcaps and blue-light are not some of them. All of these things interfere with your ability to sleep. Your brain has important work to do while you sleep so it is best not to interfere with it.
The best thing to do is limit your caffeine intake – I know, I love coffee too – but it’s terrible for your sleep. I’ve been to Italy, I know how tempting that after-dinner espresso can be. I also know from giving in to that temptation that it will lead to me staring at the ceiling wondering why I can’t sleep.
Caffeine has defined our society for the past couple of centuries. This fact is elaborated upon beautifully in a short audiobook titled Caffeine by Michael Pollan. Many of us have made some form of caffeinated beverage an essential part of our morning routines but as a rule, it is best to avoid these caffeinated products in the afternoon.
It can take up to ten hours for caffeine to completely leave your system, meaning that if you had a caffeine product anytime in the afternoon, that caffeine could still be affecting you when you go to sleep at ten.
Alcohol is another common inhibitor of good sleep. Alcohol prevents you from entering REM sleep. When savouring a glass of wine, make sure that it is at least four hours before your planned sleep time so that the alcohol has time to dissipate before you fall asleep.
Then there’s light, a major influencer that we rarely think about. The type of light and time of exposure dictates your circadian rhythm. This can be used to your advantage by exposing yourself to blue light in the morning and limiting your exposure to it in the evening.
The recently developed technology has been amazing and allows us to accomplish things that were unimaginable even a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, this amazing technology mostly involves interacting with digital screens which emit mostly blue light.
Luckily, we have caught on to this and have developed the technology further to also include a night mode. Night mode limits blue light which gives everything a red tone. While not as crisp and pretty, the red light won’t impair your ability to sleep as much.
While night mode helps, it is still best to avoid screens wherever possible for at least half an hour before going to bed. This can be done by developing a screenless night-time routine.
Developing a night-time routine
A nighttime routine is great because it tells your body that it is time for bed and helps you to wind down. Common activities that you can include in your routine are:
- Brushing your teeth
- Writing in your journal
- Reading a book
All these activities can help you to get ready for bed but pay attention to what stimulates you and what helps you relax. cold showers, meditating and reading can be very stimulating activities and may not help you reach your goal: to be as relaxed as possible. There are ways to include these activities in your nighttime routine, but they take some consideration.
Cold showers are always stimulating as they are a shock to the body, warm showers on the other hand are relaxing. A warm shower before bed can help you to fall asleep faster by warming you up and then letting you cool down in bed. This cooling signals your body that it is time to sleep.
Reading can be hazardous as well, especially if it is a thrilling story. The way around this is to either read a slightly boring book or read slower. Slowing down your reading speed will help you to relax and feel more sleepy.
What you choose for your nighttime routine will depend on what relaxes you. Once you have designed your routine it is important to be consistent. Set your phone to automatically go to night mode a couple of hours before your bedtime and set yourself a daily reminder that it is time to begin your nighttime routine. Your phone screen changing colours will be a soft reminder that it is time to start relaxing.
There will always be things that come up and prevent you from sticking to your routine or going to sleep at the same time every night but having these reminders will help you to gravitate towards an average sleep time that is roughly the same every night.
I do mean every night, even on weekends. One of the worse things you can do for your sleep aside from those after-dinner espressos is to alter your sleep schedule on weekends.
By staying up later and inherently waking up later you are putting yourself through a form of jet lag every weekend. This is why your Monday mornings are so much harder than the rest of the week. Stick to a regular sleep schedule and you will wake up feeling fresh every day. Even on Monday.
If you are having a really hard time sleeping it can be tempting to take sleep aid medications. These are often best to avoid as they do not let you fall into real sleep. Make sure you consult your doctor before starting or stopping any medication.
Now that you know what do to, you will fall asleep in no time, you are almost there.
- Study: If You Get Behind The Wheel With Less Than 6 Hours Of Sleep, Chances Of An Accident Skyrocket