By: Bonnie Brown, PsyD
As a general rule of thumb, we are told to get about eight hours of sleep per night. That means we should be sleeping about one third of our lives. That’s a large amount of our time, and often far too few people actually reach that number. Does that ever make you wonder how sleep works? What if you don’t get enough? Is it really that important? Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah…I know I need eight hours…I just cannot sleep”. What can you do to get as close to that number as possible? You’re not alone. Actually, two thirds of adults in all the developed nations do not actually obtain the recommended eight hours of sleep per night.
There are many reasons human beings sleep, and we’re only recently learning more and more. Research has shown that sleep is important for things such as our memory, ability to learn, make logical decisions, keeping our immune system in check, balancing insulin and glucose, and our cardiovascular system (to name a few). Essentially, sleep is one of the most important and effective things we can do to help keep our brain and body in a healthy state.
Most people are familiar with the notion that we have a circadian rhythm of twenty-four hours. What most people don’t know is what else goes into feeling tired and eventually falling (and staying) in a comfortable sleep state. One signal that your brain relies on is body temperature. Your core body temperature peaks in the late afternoon, then declines to a cooler temperature as bedtime nears. Roughly two hours after your bedtime, your temperature reaches it’s low point. This all happens regardless of whether you’re asleep or not. Another signal important to sleep is melatonin. Melatonin release begins soon after dusk. It is released into the bloodstream from the pineal gland, and it tells your brain that it’s dark outside. Melatonin release slows down throughout the night, and eventually stops as sunlight begins to enter the brain. While melatonin is important for the timing of sleep, it does not actually have an affect on generating sleep. Another signal important in sleep is adenosine. Adenosine is a chemical that builds up in your brain throughout the day. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine you’ll be stocking up. Adenosine acts like a mute button to the areas of the brain that promote wakefulness. Around twelve to sixteen hours of being awake, this mute button will peak and you’ll start to feel sleepy. It’s no surprise that people often interrupt this process by using caffeine. Caffeine fights against the adenosine, which tricks you into feeling alert and awake. No problem, right? Wrong. Adenosine build up does not actually stop, so when your caffeine wears off, you’re hit with the ominous “caffeine crash”. Suddenly you’re not just feeling the tiredness from earlier…but also all the extra tiredness that has been building up without you even feeling it.
So, now to the important part…are you getting enough sleep? We are historically bad at reporting our experience of how we slept the previous night, however there are two questions you can ask yourself to help answer this question. #1: Could you fall back asleep at ten or eleven a.m.? #2: Do you need caffeine in order to function in the morning? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be struggling with sleep or have an undiagnosed sleep condition. Research has shown that being sleep deprived can severely impact several areas of functioning. Sleep deprivation has been linked to conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, diabetes, obesity, and immune deficiency (again, to name a few). Sleep deprivation also has isolated, short-term consequences. Have you ever been driving along and realized that your eyelids have closed, just for a second? You may have experienced a microsleep. A microsleep lasts a few milliseconds to a few seconds and is a state of complete perceptual disconnection. All five senses essentially “turn off” during this time. They stop receiving input and giving an output. Often times, you’re not aware of these microsleep moments, but it only takes a second to cause an accident. Microsleeps tend to be more common in those who struggle with chronic sleep deprivation.
So let’s get down to the really important part: How can you set yourself up for success when it comes to getting the best possible sleep? The NIH Medline Plus website reports some tips for a healthy night’s sleep:
- Develop and maintain a sleep schedule
- Exercise regularly, and at least two to three hours prior to bed
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the afternoon, especially
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed
- Avoid large meals and beverages later at night
- If possible, avoid medications that may alter your sleep
- Don’t take a nap after 3pm
- Relax before bed with a bedtime routine
- Make your bedroom dark, cool, and technology-free
- Have the appropriate sunlight exposure
- Don’t lie in bed awake for too long
I typically don’t struggle to stay asleep, but there are nights when I have difficulties falling asleep. I rely on my sleep routine, which includes gradually decreasing both my mental and physical activities as bedtime approaches. In addition to the tips from above, I like to do a “rumination dump”. This is when I take all the things that could be lingering from earlier in the day and give them their few minutes of fame. For those few minutes, any ruminating thought that’s still present gets its attention and subsequent closure. Then, I intentionally choose to only attend to the present moment. Mindfulness has helped a lot in this area, and typically comes to me in the form of a “Five Senses” activity. The Five Senses activity is where you identify things from each of your five senses in a descending fashion. For example: 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. Sometimes I don’t even make it through the entire activity. Other times, sleep is not far behind. Take a moment to examine your current sleep routine and schedule. Perhaps you don’t allow enough time to get the recommended eight hours of sleep, or that extra cup of coffee in the afternoon is affecting you more than you thought. Self-care tends to be magnified in the New Year when resolutions are hot, but those resolutions often don’t include sleep health. My challenge to you is to identify whether or not you are getting the amount and quality of sleep that is essential to your mental and physical well being. If not, look at the tips mentioned above and see how you might be able to incorporate healthier habits to be a healthier You.