The Importance of Sleep

Bed

Getting enough sleep is crucial for health and recovery. Sleep is when your body heals and broken muscle rebuilds. “Enough” for most people means 7-9 hours a night. For very active and athletic people it’s usually on the higher end of the scale, possibly even more.

It’s been proven that sleeping less than 7 hours a night quickly leads to impaired cognitive performance and immune system. It causes mood swings and food cravings. Longterm it can increase likelihood of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or some cancers. Another thing to note here is that in most of these studies, subjects didn’t always recognize these negative effects – they thought they were fine, but the data shows they weren’t. So even if you think you can operate just as well on 5 hours of sleep, you might be wrong.

It can be tricky to know if you’re getting enough sleep. The ideal is getting up naturally without an alarm clock consistently at your desired time. There are exceptions though – some types of insomnia manifest in waking up early. It’s also typical for sleep quality decline with age, so old people are waken up easily by any disturbances. That’s often mistaken for a natural wake up, but in reality they might be missing out on sleep.

Sadly you also can’t really make up sleep debt. Sleeping longer on the weekends won’t fix issues caused by undersleeping during the week. A nap can help, but really you want to aim to make every night a good one.

I’m sceptical of the common advice to fit in exercise by waking up an hour earlier. If you have the option to take an hour out of your day somewhere, sleep should be pretty low on the list.

I’d recommend the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker to everyone who’s interested in sleep, or especially to those who don’t think it’s that important.

It’s easier to improve something if you can measure it. You can get variety of sleep trackers. There are a lot of wearables, but also other types. The accuracy is usually not 100%, but it’s enough to get some idea of when you actually fall asleep and how solid your sleep is through the night.

I have one that goes under the mattress, Beautyrest. I’ve found it very helpful in tracking and analysing my sleep. Before I used to estimate my sleep duration based on when I went to bed and when I got up, but I knew that was only a rough guess. It takes me a while to get to sleep and I pretty much always wake up at least once during the night. The only way I could analyse the quality was based on how I felt when I woke up, which is of course affected by the stage of sleep you wake up from, mode of wake up, etc. The more detailed tracker data, especially in comparison with my partners, showed me where I do indeed have issues. I’ve been able to improve my average sleep score to high 60s from low 60s in a couple months. A good score is connsidered 75 or higher, so there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

There’s some questionable parts though. Sometimes my sleep score is low because it claims I had 20-50 minute periods of wakefulness during the night. Is it possible I wouldn’t remember that? I almost want to film myself during the night to confirm. My current theory is that I just toss and turn a lot, and maybe my heart rate isn’t quite low enough for it to be sure I’m asleep. Or perhaps I move too far to the other side of the bed, who knows.

If you’re one of those people who are out like a light as soon as your head hits the pillow, I envy you deeply. It usually takes me 10-30 minutes to fall asleep, which apparently isn’t too far out of the norm.

Noise

Minimise noise. If you live next to a loud street, you might need earplugs, ear muffs, or at least thick curtains.

Light

Minimise light during the night using curtains or a sleep mask.

Minimise exposure to light, particularly blue light, in the hours before bed. Avoid screens, or at least have Flux or equivalent turned on. Another potential solution are blue light blocking glasses.

Drinks

Avoid caffeine 5-10 hours before bed. Half-life of caffeine for the average adult is 5-6 hours. This depends on how sensitive you are to caffeine and how quickly you metabolise it. You can find out some of this through genetic testing such as 23andme. I love coffee and tea, so I have plenty in the morning, but none after 3pm. I know some people can handle espresso after dinner, but I am not one of them. If you’re having trouble sleeping, reduce the quantity of caffeine you consume as well.

Avoid alcohol in the evening. Similar to above, alcohol can make you sleepy, but will reduce quality of sleep. This usually means more wake-ups during the night and/or less REM sleep.

If you’re waking up during the night to go to the bathroom, try not drinking liquids a few hours before going to bed. Waking up once a night is not out of the norm (especially for women), but if it’s happening more often, you might need to look into it.

If you don’t have the above problem, you can try drinking herbal teas, which some people find helpful. A typical choice is chamomile or if you’re more serious, valerian root.

Food

Avoid big meals 2 hours before bed. A big meal can make you sleepy, but usually leads to lower quality of sleep.

On the other hand, you will probably also struggle to go to bed if you’re hungry, so don’t eat dinner way too early.

It’s also recommended to avoid MSG heavy food, as it can cause sleeplessness. Other advice I’ve read is to eat light and digestible food for dinner ((less red meat, legumes, cruciferous vegetables) for easier sleep. Supposedly foods high in magnesium, tryptophan, B6, and serotonin (such as pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, kiwi, cherries, turkey, and greens) can also help.

Temperature

Make sure the room has a good temperature. Cooler is better than warmer, since you need your body temperature to drop a bit. Around 18 degrees Celsius might be a good starting point.

A hot shower or bath before bed can also help your body temperature drop.

Schedule

Sticking to a consistent schedule will help a lot. Yes, even on weekends. An occasional late night shouldn’t ruin everything, just don’t make it a habit.

An afternoon nap can be helpful, just make sure it’s not too late in the day.

Stress

If you’re in a stressful period in your life (exams, work deadline…), it’s fairly normal to experience some sleep disruption. Mine usually manifests in waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep despite feeling tired. At those occasions, it’s best not to beat yourself up about it and cause yourself additional stress. Set up conditions for sleep as best you can, but understand that it won’t always work.

The worst thing you can do is stress about sleep. Lying in bed calculating how much sleep you’re going to get if you fall asleep right this minute is sadly not helpful. I know this can be hard to achieve, but if you’re doing your best to get good sleep and implementing all of the above, try not to get attached to the result. Even if you do everything perfectly, there will be some nights when it just doesn’t work, and that’s okay.

Activity

Exercise during the day is usually helpful, but if you do it too late in the evening, it can have the opposite effect.

Similarly, avoid other mentally exciting or stressful activities in the hours before bed. Being calm and relaxed is more conducive to sleep.

Since you should also avoid screens if possible, ideally what you want to do is something like:

  • reading a book that’s not too interesting, so you can put it down
  • gentle stretches or meditation
  • tidy a bit and prepare bag, clothes, etc for tomorrow

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