Ask most people how they slept and they’ll either tell you that they had a horrible night’s sleep or else that they slept great …. Most aren’t aware if their sleep was actually interrupted, or that they didn’t get anywhere near the amount of sleep that they think they did. Most people calculate their sleep time based upon when they climb into bed or turn out the light, but they may actually take an hour to fall asleep, or wake up well before their alarm or at some point in the middle of the night, bringing the seven hours that they thought they had gotten down to a more legitimate five or six.
The trouble is that five or six hours of sleep isn’t nearly as much as you need, and our brains do a pretty terrible job of letting us know how fatigued we really are. That’s why the recent boom in sleep monitoring technology has been so popular. People are using their wristband and bedside devices and learning the reality of their sleep habits, and with any luck that is going to translate into people spending more time trying to get the quality sleep that they need.
Being well rested means more than just having energy the next day. Your memory skills and physical performance are also at their best when you regularly get enough sleep, and the same is true of your physical wellbeing. Perhaps more importantly, failure to get the sleep that you need can do real damage. The sleep monitors that are on the market today measure the three basic factors of sleep: duration, quality, and when you’re actually getting the sleep. The devices largely use accelerometers that can measure detected motions to let you know how much time you’re spending in sound sleep versus tossing and turning. They can tell when you’re in light sleep or deep sleep to help you wake up at the optimal time, and perhaps most importantly they will provide you with a sleep efficiency number that tells you how much of your evening was actually spent sleeping versus the time that was simply spent lying awake in bed.
The sleep efficiency number is a relatively new metric, and it hasn’t been scientifically proven for accuracy, but most experts agree that your should be getting pretty close to an 85 each night. That would mean that 85% of the time you’re spending in bed is actually spent on rest. According to Rachel Salas, a neurologist who studies sleep at Johns Hopkins, “I wouldn’t necessarily seek help if you’re looking at sleep efficiency based on a device and see no other signs of a problem.” What are those signs she’s talking about? Daytime fatigue, drowsy driving, trouble sleeping through the night.
That being the case, you might wonder what good the sleep monitoring devices do? Their real value comes in tracking your sleep efficiency numbers over time and seeing whether making minor changes in lifestyle might make a difference in your sleep quality. Things like starting to exercise, cutting down on alcohol intake or limiting caffeine to earlier hours of the day are exactly the kind of modifications that can make a big difference in sleep quality, and seeing a shift in the numbers on a sleep tracker may be just enough encouragement to make these changes permanent, and even to investigate whether other shifts may help as well. According to Michael Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, “The value of that number is in whether it changes.”
So what can you do today to see a change in your sleep efficiency number tomorrow? Here are the most-frequently recommended lifestyle adjustments that can make a marked improvement in sleep efficiency.
1. Shut down your devices before bed. The use of electronic devices is a no-no for a number of different reasons. There is significant research that shows that the particular type of light that is emitted by laptops, tablets and cellphones plays tricks on the brain, fooling it into thinking that it is daytime. This has a negative impact on the all-important circadian cycle that alerts us to when it is time to be awake and time to be drowsy. Blue light can alter the body’s production of melatonin, an important hormone that makes us feel drowsy at night. Additionally, the content of what we are looking at online or on our televisions has a tendency to increase our level of alertness and stress. Whether you’re using the smart phone or computer to watch movies, play video games or check work email, experts say that it should be turned off at least one hour and preferably two hours prior to bedtime.
2. Create a regular bedtime and wakeup time. The human body thrives on a schedule, so the more consistent you can keep your going to bed and waking up schedule, the more you’ll find that your body is tuned in and cooperating. People who sleep on a regular schedule find themselves getting drowsy within half an hour or hour of the time that they normally go to bed, and will wake up at the same time each morning without benefit of an alarm.
3. Exercise regularly, but not right before bedtime. Exercise has been proven to help the body get a good night’s sleep, but that is most true of exercise that is pursued early in the day. Though recent studies have proven that working out in the evening has no ill effect and is roughly the same as people who do not exercise at all, exercising too close to bedtime can increase the body temperature and heart rate and make it hard to fall asleep.
4. Cut out alcohol before bed and stop caffeine after 4 p.m. Most people don’t realize that alcohol can actually end up making you wake up in the middle of the night as the body metabolizes it. Cut out caffeine use after 4 p.m. and minimize your alcohol intake, particularly