Getting Enough Sleep
Necessity, consequences, and tips for better sleep
We all know that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep, but hardly anyone actually does it, because we’re busy and have things to do and in reality it doesn’t seem to have a big impact on our lives. Four, five, or six hours usually seems sufficient in the US, people even take pride in how little they can sleep and still operate. In fact, almost 30% of adults in the US report getting less than 6 hours of sleep per day (ref). So let’s talk about whether it really is important, and why.
What is Sleep?
Sleep is a chance for your brain to recharge and relax. Much like after a few hours of exercise, your muscles need to take a break, after a full day of thinking about things, you brain needs a break in order to keep performing well. The difference here is that when your muscles are worn out, you can feel the pain and it’s difficult to continue. But with your brain, it’s much more subtle. Although of course you are familiar with feeling tired, your brain can operate at a subpar level because it needs rest without you explicitly noticing for a long time. This makes sleep deprivation an easier state to operate in, and also much more dangerous.
How Much Sleep Do I Actually Need?
As an adult, you need 7–8 hours of sleep each day. If you are getting less sleep than this, you are in bad shape. Really bad shape. The younger you are, the more sleep you need. As a kid or teenager, you need 9–10 hours each day.
What Happens When I Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Now we’re getting into the interesting stuff. While I feel most people are vaguely aware that it’s good for you to get more sleep, it turns out that it’s actually extraordinarily bad for you not to get enough. What happens at a very basic level is that your brain simply does not work as well. Much like a tired muscle cannot perform as well as a well-rested one, your brain on sleep deprivation simply cannot match a well-rested brain. The difference is that your brain doesn’t physically hurt like a muscle, it quietly decreases performance. So you need to be extra vigilant about monitoring your sleep level to catch this.
It gets worse. Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep leads to hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity (ref). Additionally, you are at a higher risk for embarrassment or danger in the form of falling asleep at the wheel or unintentionally falling asleep during the day. Statistics show a shocking 36% of adults age 25–35 fell asleep unintentionally during the day at least once in the last month, and 7.2% fell asleep at the wheel (ref).
In short, any time you get less than 7–8 hours of sleep in a day, you are decreasing your productivity, severely harming your long term health, and putting yourself at a much higher risk of making mistakes that could lead to you losing your job, being injured, or even killed. Getting the right amount of sleep is of paramount importance to living a happy, healthy, and productive life, and anything preventing you from doing so should be a top priority to take care of as quickly as you can.
How Can I Get A Better Night’s Sleep?
There are many things you can do to help you sleep better and more consistently at night. I’ll do this one in list form.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. This makes your body adjust to this timing and prepare itself for sleeping and waking up at these times. This can give you a high level of consistency without alarms, if you are diligent.
- For at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep, do not use screens. Try reading, relaxing, meditating, cleaning up, etc. If you have to use a screen in the evening, use flux. Blue light decreases melatonin levels which makes it harder for you to sleep.
- Don’t pressure yourself to go to sleep. Just let your brain wander, and relax. The more you feel pressured to go to sleep, the longer it will take for you to actually get there.
- Don’t set alarms in the morning. Alarms pull you out of REM cycles and are unnatural. If you get enough sleep and keep your shades open, the light will wake you up naturally when you need to. If you have a job where you wake up before it’s light out, then use a sleep cycle timed alarm and/or get a new job.
- Make sure the place you are sleeping is the right temperature. Your body will have a lot of trouble getting to sleep if it’s too hot or too cold. In the winter, keep your feet warm before going to bed. In the summer, make sure you have windows open and a fan or AC going a little before bed so everything is cool enough.
- Do not drink anything with caffeine at least 6 hours before bed. That’s right, this means it’s bad to drink coffee after noon, generally. If you like coffee, just get decaf after noon. If you feel like you need the caffeine to keep you going, you either are already sleep deprived or have a caffeine addiction, both of which should be eliminated.
- Don’t eat a lot before bed. Not only does it make it harder for you to fall asleep, it’s also super unhealthy as all those calories go straight to fat since you are consuming very little energy when you sleep.
- Use a sleep monitor that shows your REM cycles, to gather data on the quality of your sleep. Experiment with this data in different circumstances to see how they effect your sleep quality. A couple good ones to look into are beddit and zeo. Fitbits, jawbones, misfits, and most other activity trackers also offer this functionality. On top of that, there are a bunch of standalone apps for phones that will track sleep for you based on movement.
Photo is over a railing on the walking path on the west side of Manhattan at sunset. You only have a few hours after sunset to keep getting work done, make the best of it!