If you have been dreaming about getting more sleep or your best friend is your snooze button, good news. Sleep is the new superpower. It’s a secret that is becoming a focal point of high performers. Sleep is one more example of little things that have the opportunity to make a big difference to the quality of our days. Here’s hoping you have a chance to test out the value of a little extra sleep this long weekend. Enjoy Victoria Day weekend.
The science of sleep is, surprisingly, a relatively new area of study. Matthew Walker a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkley has spent most of his waking hours studying what happens while we’re asleep. He’s published over 100 research papers on the subject. His book Why We Sleep is a curation of all that scientists have learned about the world of sleep. Walker covers the subject in great detail from how our sleep patterns have evolved over time, how our sleep is similar to and different from that of other animals, how sleep changes within each of us from our time in the womb through adolescence into adulthood and on into our later years. In this note we’ll try to summarize some of the benefits of sleep to our performance and offer some tips for how to improve the quality of our sleep.
Any animal whose lifespan extends past a few days sleeps. Sleep is a biological necessity. Without it we can’t survive. Yet, sleep is much more than just aiding survival. It allows us to thrive. All good things come to us during our downtime. Growth, restoration, revitalization across our physiological systems occurs. Walker writes, “There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).” A lack of sleep is linked to any number of health afflictions like attention deficit disorders, autism, dementia, obesity, heart disease, and more. With less sleep or poor quality sleep, our ability to function suffers. Not only does it impact our short term health, the amount of sleep we consistently enjoy influences our life span. Those that sleep less than the recommended seven to nine hours a night on a regular basis tend to have shorter life spans. In Effortless, Greg McKeown asks, “Does it sometimes seem like you’re sleeping a lot less than you used to?” He then offers research suggests we’re sleeping on average two hours less a night than we did fifty years ago. This translates into around a third of us sleeping less than seven hours nightly. McKeown writes, “This is not inconsequential. People who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, asthma, arthritis, depression, and diabetes and are almost eight times more likely to be overweight. Sleep deprivation is insidious. In one study, people who got less than six hours of sleep per night saw a decline in their motor skills and their cognitive abilities and nodded off more frequently.”
Sleep matters. Walker encourages us to accept that our success depends on sleep. “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.” Our ability to learn, achieve benefits from exercise, and manage ourselves well in social circumstances all depend on getting a good night sleep. Our physical and mental health are fueled as much or more from sleep than from food. Our ability to do our jobs at work and at home depend on being well rested.
Our desire to sleep is driven by two separate systems. We each have a circadian rhythm which on average is slightly longer than 24 hours. There are individual differences as to when our circadian rhythms run. Around 40% of us are early birds that prefer to wake up earlier. 30% are night owls that get going when others are winding down. Another 30% fall in between. Our circadian rhythm influences not just when we get up but when we feel sleepy and how our energy levels are during the day. It ebbs and flows. Our circadian rhythms are driven by the hormone melatonin. Production of this hormone increases in the hours post dusk which leads to increased drowsiness. Melatonin helps set the stage for our desire to go to bed. Fluctuations in our internal body temperature also are part of our circadian rhythm with the low point corresponding to when we are likely to be in deeper sleep. Melatonin levels and body temperature are the two variables that influence our circadian rhythm.
A second system influencing our desire to sleep is sleep pressure. The hormone, adenosine, is produced beginning once we’re awake. It continues to be produced during each of our waking hours. As the amount of adenosine builds in our blood system, so, too, does our fatigue. The longer we’re awake, the more fatigued we’ll become. We typically experience strong fatigue from adenosine after 12 – 16 hours of being awake. Once we’re asleep, adenosine production pauses and we awake alert the next morning. If we try to stay up all night our adenosine continues to build increasing sleep pressure.
The two cycles work independently to influence our desire to sleep. Our circadian rhythm and sleep pressure are what push us to pause and seek slumber. What, though, does sleep look like?
We move through two types of sleep. REM and nREM. REM is our dream state. nREM is the rest of our sleep. nREM sleep is further broken down into four stages. Our sleep patterns follow a typical cycling through REM and nREM sleep several times a night. A cycle usually lasts around 90 minutes. If things go well, we work through five a night. Different restorative functions are served by each stage of sleep. Our nREM sleep helps us internalize new experiences and learning whereas REM sleep helps us integrate today’s events with our past. REM sleep seems to have surfaced in our evolutionary history after nREM.
Walker suggests that our REM sleep evolved after we began sleeping on the ground. During our dream stages our body shuts off signals to our muscles so that we don’t act out our dreams. We couldn’t do this while living in trees. Once we slept on the ground, our REM sleep increased. The newer portion of our thinking brain also rapidly grew in this period of our evolution. Our ability to get along with each other, devise creative solutions, and learn all grew in proportion to our REM and brain size development separating us from other animals. Animals with more complex nervous systems tend to sleep more.
Most of us sleep through a single, long stretch each night. This type of sleep is known as monophasic. Professor Walker notes that our more natural state may be biphasic in that most of our sleep occurs during a longer night session but that we benefit from a short mid afternoon nap. Eight hours at night plus a thirty to sixty minute nap is an ideal combination for optimal functioning. There’s a biological basis for the afternoon nap in that we all are wired to have a dip in alertness in the afternoon. Cultures that exist without clocks still today enjoy an afternoon snooze as do athletes, creatives, and many others.
Professor Walker presents a bullet proof case against seeing sleeping less as a strength. There is little support for the idea that we can do more with less sleep. All evidence points to the contrary. Our productivity is less when sleepy. We make more mistakes. We are more difficult to deal with. Without good sleep, we’re grumpy, less creative, and slower to get things done. Nothing about us improves when sleep deprived. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our performance depends on productive slumber. More time at rest helps us be our best. We can do more and accomplish more by snoring more. In short, it is ok to say, yes, please, more zzz’s.
There are many devices widely available to help us monitor our sleep. We can use watches, rings, mattress liners, and more which claim to recognize the quality and duration of our sleep. These may be interesting to consider, but we can also keep track of our sleep quality by simply reflecting on our prior night each day when we wake up. We can record our observation either as a sentence or two or by assigning a numeric sleep quality rating to each night. Professor Walker invites us to consider a couple of questions to help assess whether we are getting enough sleep. For example, if you didn’t have an alarm clock set, would you sleep well past when you want to get up? Or, once you are awake could you fall back to sleep later morning around 11am? If you would sleep much later without an alarm or you can fall back to sleep before noon, you may not be getting enough good sleep. Alternately, there’s a five question self-test (SATED) you can consider taking.
What can you do to try sleeping a little more? The obvious places to start are to go to bed a little earlier or set your morning alarm a little later. Separate from this, take advantage while you can of working from home and try squeezing in a thirty minute snooze in the mid afternoon. Try any or all of these modest efforts for a week or two and monitor how you’re feeling. Retake the SATED questionnaire and see if your sleep assessment improves. Improving our sleep is one of those little things that costs nothing, not even effort. By doing less, we can accomplish more. What more can we ask for than this? McKeown writes, “Getting more sleep may be the single greatest gift we can give our bodies, our minds, and even, it turns out, our bottom lines.”
Sleep is where we’re spending a good chunk of our lives. If we’re going to spend a third of our time doing it, we may as well try to do it a bit better. Below are Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep professor Walker provides in an appendix to his book as well as on page 20 of this article. Hopefully, you are able to try one or more of these. If you’re still not convinced of the superpower of sleeping, consider reading this article, The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Health: Sleep Well. Sweet dreams.
Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends won’t fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning. Set an alarm for bedtime. Often we set an alarm for when it’s time to wake up but fail to do so for when it’s time to go to sleep. If there is only one piece of advice you remember and take from these twelve tips, this should be it.
Exercise is great, but not too late in the day. Try to exercise at least thirty minutes on most days but not later than two to three hours before your bedtime.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Coffee, colas, certain teas, and chocolate contain the stimulant caffeine, and its effects can take as long as eight hours to wear off fully. Therefore, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Nicotine is also a stimulant, often causing smokers to sleep only very lightly. In addition, smokers often wake up too early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Having a nightcap or alcoholic beverage before sleep may help you relax, but heavy use robs you of REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. Heavy alcohol ingestion also may contribute to impairment in breathing at night. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. A light snack is okay, but a large meal can cause indigestion, which interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist to see whether any drugs you’re taking might be contributing to your insomnia and ask whether they can be taken at other times during the day or early in the evening.
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Relax before bed. Don’t overschedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath before bed. The drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax and slow down so you’re more ready to sleep.
Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom. Get rid of anything in your bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or warm temperatures. You sleep better if the temperature in the room is kept on the cool side. A TV, cell phone, or computer in the bedroom can be a distraction and deprive you of needed sleep.
Having a comfortable mattress and pillow can help promote a good night’s sleep. Individuals who have insomnia often watch the clock. Turn the clock’s face out of view so you don’t worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.
Have the right sunlight exposure. Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least thirty minutes each day. If possible, wake up with the sun or use very bright lights in the morning. Sleep experts recommend that, if you have problems falling asleep, you should get an hour of exposure to morning sunlight and turn down the lights before bedtime.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than twenty minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.