Sleep is one of the few natural bodily functions that people seem to think that they have a choice about. Despite the fact that health experts have referred to sleep as one of the three pillars of health, equivalent in importance to eating and exercising, an inordinately high percentage of us put it very low on our list of priorities and try to override our body’s requirements to spend more time on things that we deem to be more important, such as our social lives or our work obligations.
Yet studies have shown that no matter how dispensable you believe sleep to be, you can’t skip it without having the lack of sleep quality and quantity impact you. An article that recently appeared in The New York Times followed the process of a sleep restriction study, and reported that, “All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another… study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.”
In addition to a number of studies pointing to the impairment caused by sleep deprivation, there have also been a number of studies that have found that the greater the level of our sleep deprivation, the more difficult it is for us to experience happiness. In the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the award-winning science journalists explain that, “Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala: positive or neutral memories get processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31 percent of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.””
For those who opt for getting more sleep, the result is improved decision making and higher odds that the goals that they have set for themselves will actually be achieved. On the other hand, those who opt out of sleep have a much higher risk of catching colds and viruses, or making decisions to behave unethically. And though the idea of beauty sleep has often been referred to jokingly, there is a significant amount of evidence that it does in fact exist. People who are sleep deprived have been graded as being less attractive than are those who get enough sleep.
Perhaps most important for those who want to improve the quality of their lives is the fact that sleep deprivation has a substantial affect on your performance. In the book “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, author John Medina writes, “Take an A student used to scoring in the top ten percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about forty minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom nine percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals.”
Taking all of this information together, it seems obvious that getting more sleep is a relatively easy route to take to improve the quality of your life. But if you’re out of the habit of sleeping you may find yourself hard pressed to successfully get the seven to nine hours per night that the experts say that your body needs. There are several things that you can do to help yourself to consistently get a great night’s sleep. The first of these is to make sure that you get some exercise during the day. Not only will exercising give you more energy to carry you through the day and improve your overall health, it will also make it far easier for you to fall asleep and sleep soundly throughout the night. There have been studies that have advised against exercising at night, indicating that doing so might stimulate the body too much to allow you to fall asleep, but they have largely been disproven. As long as you’re not exercising with an hour or two of your bedtime, nighttime activities will still do the trick and help you improve your sleep quantity and quality.
Another step that you can take to help ensure a good night’s sleep is to set your bedroom thermostat to a chilly temperature of between sixty and sixty-six degrees. Though the idea of being in such a cold environment may sound like torture to some, studies have shown that people fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply when the room temperature is cold. Some people take this idea even further and take cold showers before they go to sleep in order to cool down their bodies and speed up the process of falling asleep.
The electronic devices that we are all so addicted to are definitely interfering with your sleep quality if you’re using them close to your bedtime, so if you’re guilty of checking email while you’re lying in bed, or even browsing the internet on your tablet, you need to break that habit. These devices emit a special type of blue wave light that throws off your body’s internal clock and makes your brain think it is time to wake up. Break the electronic habit and opt for a paperback book.
It may seem obvious to say that you should cut out afternoon and evening caffeine, but you may be surprised to hear that the same is true of alcohol. Though most people think alcohol is a sedative — and it does have sedative effects — those effects burn off quickly while you’re sleeping, and if you drink too close to when you go to bed you’re likely to wake up in the middle of the night with a start, and then be unable to fall back to sleep.