Every night you have difficulty controlling your bedtime doze. And every morning, as you wake up tired and achy, you promise yourself you will go to sleep early tonight.
When you finally do that, you keep tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. You wonder, can you somehow hack your unhappy sleep habits?
The Curse of Sleeplessness
You sigh as you read these lines in a morning publication:
Respect your body’s need for sleep. A full sleep each night is critical for your long life.
You know that for a fact. You know your body’s demand for a night of sleep is a non-negotiable for your health.
But not on this day. Today, you must run through 18 hours to push across a mountain of work. There’s no way you can put off any of it.
So you start to overwork through another of your frantic days in a half-eyed haze.
It’s a haze of sleep deprivation, carried over from many yesterdays you lost count of.
Every morning you tell yourself you’ll sleep early today. Every night you fail that promise.
Even though you know how important it is for you physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, it’s too hard for you to get enough sleep each day. Even when you have half a dozen apps on your phone to help you get to sleep, you have no time to fire up any of them.
By the time you hit bed, you are hardly awake to see you’re diving headfirst to a burnout. You remember someone told you that Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, was the twin-brother of Thanatos, their god of death.
Perhaps half-knowingly, you’re trying to go out in peaceful sleep.
You’re not alone. Scarcity of sleep is the curse of half the world’s population.
The surprising part is almost all of us know how much of sleep we need. Ask anyone, and they will tell you it’s eight hours. So says science too.Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, was the twin-brother of Thanatos, their god of death. Click To Tweet
Then, why don’t you sleep enough?
The Science of Sleeplessness
Sleep remains a mystery despite all the sum of scientific progress. We know a lot, but we still don’t know all about it. Sleep makes us feel better, more energetic, alert, and happier. But we still don’t know for sure why we sleep; we only have unproven theories.
There are at least 75 recognized sleep disorders. Of these, sleep deprivation is what we can control the most on our own.
But as a society, we instead aggrandize our sleepless hours and glorify our wins over sleep.
Sleep researchers have examined what happens when animals are not allowed to sleep. Rats, kept continuously awake for two weeks, fall dead. They indicate what harms we humans do to ourselves when we ignore sleep.
Three of the commonest after-effects of a night without full sleep are tiredness, bad mood, and lack of attention. Within the first 24 hours of sleep deprivation, your blood pressures start to rise. Soon, the body temperature drops and your immune system weakens.
Then, you begin to hear voices and see ghosts.
Poor sleep makes your judgment, reaction times, ability to take fast decisions, situational awareness and capacity to learn and retain information, go berserk within hours.
Prolonged lack of sleep is associated with increased risks of cardiac problems, brain stroke and diseases of metabolism as diabetes. Going persistently without proper sleep increases your likelihood of getting distressed, depressed, angry, and anxious.
Researchers at the Great British Sleep Survey found that 63.1 percent people are unhappy with the amount of sleep they get. Only 8 percent said they always wake up feeling refreshed. The survey also found that sleep deprived persons are seven times more likely to feel helpless in any challenging situation.Only 8 percent said they always wake up feeling refreshed. - Great British Sleep Survey, 2016. Click To Tweet
Sleep loss also makes you fat. When you sleep less, your gut produces more of ‘ghrelin’ – your hunger hormone. As a result, along with other factors as reduced leptin and energy levels, you end up eating more, especially the ‘comfort foods.’
Mayo Clinic found that people getting 4 or less hours of sleep each night are 73 percent more likely to get overweight. And a 2015 Berkeley study showed that for every hour of sleep a person loses, they gain 2.1 points on their body mass index (BMI).
Sleep and stress work in an inverse relationship: the less your sleep, the more acute your stress; and the more the stress, the less you manage to sleep.
A study from the University of California found that the final stage of your sleep cycle, the REM sleep, during which you dream, helps you process emotional stress.
It can affect your genes too. Research from University of Surrey found loss of sleep causes changes in the expression of more than 700 of our genes. And after just one week of sleeping less, genes that control inflammation in the body increase their activity.
Scientists warn that when you don’t get enough sleep, over time your brain stops working properly. The most dangerous effect of sleep loss is that it can lead to shrinking of your brain.
Continuous sleep deprivation can start to kill your brain cells.
Brain studies show that after a night of less than 6 hours sleep, the emotional center of our brain – amygdala – becomes hyperactive. While the higher cortical centers of our brain, that do executive thinking, become less active. So you think less, and react more.
During sleep, our brains and nervous systems are actually in intense activity, not resting. Of the many good things that sleep does for brain health, one is the cleansing out of the toxic deposits.
In 2015, scientists discovered for the first time that our brains have a drainage system, the glymphatic system. It cleans out the toxic amyloid-beta (Aβ) proteins that build up in our brains during the day.
These same proteins are the main reason behind Alzheimer’s, a disease which strips away all our memories. Scientists have seen large deposits of these Aβ proteins in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Now the greater discovery was that while we sleep, the glymphatic system works 60 percent more actively to pump out these toxins. So, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re probably pushing yourself towards Alzheimer’s.
Sleep deprivation compels you to go into ‘microsleeps’ while doing other things. Microsleeps are often the worst offenders behind fatal road accidents. Data show that sleepy drivers cause around 1.2 million car crashes annually in US alone.
The Stages of Sleep Cycle
Sllep isn’t an inactive stage. With the invention of a machine to record electric activity of the brain — electroencephalogram or EEG — in 1929, scientists were able to find out the dynamic state of sleep.
Throughout the night, we go through cycles of sleep, each cycle lasting about 90 to 120 minutes. One whole cycle of sleep has 4 stages.
The first 3 stages fall under the category of Non Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM or NREM) sleep, while and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) consists of the 4th stage.
• Stage 1 (Non-REM): The twilight phase of sleep, when you’re entering sleep and floating in and out of wakefulness. During this, a phenomenon called hypnic myoclonus occurs when some of your muscles jerk. From this stage of drowsiness, which lasts 1 to 7 minutes, you slip into stage 2.
• Stage 2 (Non-REM): About half of your whole sleep is this – the stage of light sleep. In this, your eyelids stops fluttering, your brain and heart slow down, and the core body temperature falls. This stage lasts 10 to 25 minutes.
• Stage 3 (Non-REM): This is the deep sleep stage. Also called “slow-wave” or “delta” sleep. The brain in this stops responding to outside stimuli, and it is quite difficult to awaken you from this stage of sleep. During slow wave sleep, there are no muscle or eye movements, and your body temperature and blood pressure drops even further. This stage generally lasts 20 to 40 minutes.
• Stage 4 or REM Sleep: This is stage when your eyes move rapidly. It seems as if you are trying to follow things even with closed eyes. This stage, often called “active sleep,” on EEG shows an alpha rhythm with low-amplitude (small), high-frequency (fast) waves.
Sleep experts think these rapid eye movements are because of your dreams. When people are woken up from REM sleep, they say they recall watching some vivid dreams.
Many think the dreams you see help you confront the emotional dramas in your life, and reach solutions. A research found people who had more of REM sleep, had lesser fear-related brain activity when given mild electric shocks the next day. Another research found a nap that included REM sleep helped people recognize happy expressions better.
However, even when your REM phase is an active stage in which your eyes move, and your blood pressure and temperature rises, your limb muscles stay paralyzed so that you can’t act out your dreams.
The REM or dream stage of sleep lasts 10 to 20 minutes.
At the end of REM stage, you wake up for a brief period and start another sleep cycle again.
The Conquest of Sleeplessness
Do you know how much you sleep? You can download and use American Association of Sleep Medicine’s sleep diary here: Sleep Diary (PDF) to find out how much of sleep you are getting these days.
Sleep researchers tell us that we need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours we are awake. National Sleep Foundation recommends these sleep guidelines for adults:
- 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults
- 7 to 8 hours of sleep for older adults
If you find a glaring mismatch between the hours you sleep and the hours you must sleep, it’s time to take action.
Does overthinking keep you awake at night on your bed?
6 Hacks To Sleep Deeper And Better
Here are six of the most effective tips from the sleep scientists to help you sleep deeper and fuller everyday. They club these as Sleep Hygiene, meaning habits helpful for sleeping well.
But remember, these are not magic pills. You have to apply these for 3 to 5 weeks before starting to see results.
Six Scientific Sleep Hacks — For Deeply Refreshing Sleep:
- Set A Sleep Schedule
- Take Daily Naps
- Avoid Stimulants
- Exercise Daily
- Create Pre-Sleep Rituals
- Build Bedroom Habits
1. Set A Sleep Schedule
- Go to bed at the same time everyday, even on weekends. And wake up at the same time every morning. It strengthens your natural sleep-wake cycle, called circadian rhythm. Regular sleeping times also improve sleep quality.
- For a change, rather than a wake-up alarm, set a gentle tune on your phone to remind yourself you’re close to your bedtime. Dim the lights when the sleep-time alarm plays.
- Sleeping early is easier than you think. Write down your sleeping times on piece of paper and paste it somewhere prominent: e.g. I sleep at 11 pm. I get up at 7 am.
2. Take Daily Naps
- Take a nap or a snooze or a siesta or a shuteye in the day. Call it forty-winks or beauty sleep, but giving a brief rest to the brain increases its creativity, intuition, imagination and ability to solve problems. Sometime back, a ‘nap bar’ opened in Madrid, called Siesta & Go, where you could walk in and “lie down on a bed as if it were yours.”
- Learning after a nap equals learning after a full night of sleep.
- A nap reduces stress and fatigue. A study by Allegheny College of Pennsylvania on 85 healthy college students showed those who took daily naps of 45 to 60 minutes decreased their blood pressure and heart rates, and handled anxiety better.
- A NASA study of 747 pilots showed those taking a 26-minute nap daily made 34 percent fewer errors at work and doubled their alertness levels.
- A study found a nap that includes the REM phase increases your receptivity to facial expressions of happiness.
- However, don’t try to fill up the lack of a proper nighttime sleep by daytime napping. Find out the best nap length.
3. Avoid Stimulants
- Stop having tea, coffee, chocolate, sodas, nicotine or cigarette at least 4 hours before bedtime. The stimulant effect of caffeine takes up to six hours to wear off.
- Sleep scientist Patrick M. Fuller, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, follows himself what he advises: to avoid all stimulants past mid-day.
- At all costs, quit the smoking habit altogether; not just for the sake of sleep, but also for your health and your genes.
- Skip the late evening alcohol too. Alcohol initially makes you drowsy, as it’s a nervous system depressant. But as soon as the blood alcohol level drops, it activates your sympathetic system. This wakes you up from the deep and dream phases of your sleep. So, you’re groggy next morning.
- Once you’ve banished all stimulants, if you still find it difficult to fall asleep, try a relaxation program as sleep meditation.
4. Exercise Daily
- Exercise enhances quality of your sleep. Also, not exercising leads to poor sleep. So get into a daily habit of 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days a week. If you find it difficult to get into a daily exercise habit, read this guide.
- But remember to schedule your workouts before late evening. Morning and afternoon workouts can increase your quality and quantity of sleep at night.
- Try this for a start: Get up in morning and go for a 12 minute walk in the park. A 2010 study found that those who exercised in the morning before eating, gained almost no weight and burnt more fat through the day than other men.
- Don’t do any heavy exercise within 4 hours of bedtime. However, light exercise as yoga or walking after dinner is fine.
5. Create Pre-Sleep Rituals
- Creating a new habit is hard. But there’s a solution — create rituals. These are specific end-of-the-day habits that prime you for a deep, restful sleep.
- Eat a light dinner around 3 hours before bedtime, to give your digestive system enough time to work. Also, don’t go to bed on a hungry stomach; it won’t let you fall asleep easily.
- Do some light, fun activities after dinner. Push off all heavy work or issues to the next day once you’ve finished dinner. Read a soothing book (not an ebook).
- Don’t touch your laptop, phone, or any other blue light emitting screen at least 2 hours before bedtime. Blue lights from digital screens depress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep.
- Take a warm shower 1 hour before you hit bed. Dim the lights an hour before bedtime. This stimulates your melatonin secretion.
- Try to switch off all digital devices 30 minutes before bedtime.
6. Build Bedroom Habits
- Keep your bedroom clutter free. Don’t let your pets into your bedroom; they disturb your sleep.
- Banish laptops and smartphones to a different room. For best results, never install a TV in your bedroom.
- Do not eat or drink on bed. A 2012 US poll found the mattress, pillows, and even fresh scent of sheets all contribute to the quality of people’s sleep.
- Make sure the bed-sheets and pillow-covers are clean. Change your sheets weekly. Experts suggest you should replace your mattresses every 8 years, by when you have used around 20,761 hours lying on top of it. So, once again, make sure the bed you lie down is clean.
- Close to sleeping time, cut down the bright lights. Shut out all harsh noise; use earplugs or a white noise if you need to.
- Adjust the room temperature to a comfortable level.
- If you’re lying awake in your bed for 20 minutes or more, therapists suggest you get out of bed and do something non-stimulating (as reading a boring text book) until you start to feel drowsy. At that time, return to bed immediately.
The truth is, since the invention of light bulb about 140 years ago, the world never slumbers when it comes to work. Electric lights are the reason we started to cheat on our body clocks. From there, we started to skip on our sleep.Electric lights are the reason we started to cheat on our body clocks. Click To Tweet
There’s no doubt you need to make time to sleep better and fuller. A good night’s sleep can make you feel wonderful and highly productive. It keeps you in a happier mood and increases your positivity.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a night owl or an early bird, you can’t have a healthy life without enough sleep.
Now start giving yourself what you have been depriving yourself of — 8 hours of sleep everyday.
Mind the words of Aldous Huxley, author of the 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World:
That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.
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