10 Sleep Takeaways After 10 Years of Studying Sleep

Modern life has disconnected us from our sleep — here are some ways to fix it.

After studying sleep for 10 years as a PhD in Cognitive Psychology, I’ve seen this disconnect first hand. People should understand and talk about their sleep like we talk about our diet and exercise.

But we live in a society that admires the sleep-deprived workaholic and disregards the fully rested and more thoughtful among us. It can be hard to focus on our sleep health, so I’ve compiled 10 main takeaways from my decade in the sleep world. Hopefully these tips will help you improve the quality of your sleep, your health, and your overall well-being.

1) Don’t underestimate the Circadian Component. People generally have an idea about how much sleep they need (called the homeostatic component of sleep). For example, I know I need about 8 hours. But people often know little about their individual internal 24-hour clock, aka the circadian rhythm. Here’s what you need to know. Everyone has a 24-hour cycle that is impacted by this weird German word called zeitgebers. Zeitgebers are environmental cues that impact our human physiology. The most relevant zeitgeber to sleep is natural sunlight. Sunlight penetrates photoreceptors in the eye, even when the eye is closed. This sends a signal to a place in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (my favorite word in the English language by the way). The suprachiasmatic nucleus impacts the release of melatonin and a whole slew of other neurotransmitters. This system, known as the circadian rhythm, impacts everything from your fatigue level throughout the day to your immune system. It explains that feeling of being wide awake at a certain time in the morning, sleepy after that afternoon lunch, and really tired at 3 in the morning. Everyone has their own unique circadian component, which can be shifted forward or backward.

2) The main problem is that we aren’t getting enough sleep. Differences between people aside, the main societal problem when it comes to sleep is that people are just not getting enough of it. I don’t need to read off the stats, everyone knows those people in your lives that skate by on 5–6 hours of sleep, or sometimes even less. (Or, that person might be you!) Getting such little sleep is pretty unhealthy: It negatively impacts literally every organ in the body, and chronic sleep deprivation can decrease your life expectancy by as much as 5 years.

3) There are 2 major causes for trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. After interviewing people with sleep problems I’ve noticed that they generally fall into two categories: 1) People who can’t sleep due to external environmental factors and 2) People who can’t sleep due to internal factors. Ways to address external sleep disturbances can be things that are as simple as: getting a more comfortable bed, closing your blinds at night to prevent light exposure, and wearing earplugs so your neighbor’s snoring isn’t so bothersome. Internal sleep disturbances relate to repetitive or anxious thoughts close to bedtime. This can be more effectively addressed by following good sleep hygiene, associating your bed with sleeping, and following relaxation or meditation techniques (see more).

4) Don’t make too big of a deal about sleep cycles (ditch the alarm if you can). A lot of apps out there claim to impact your sleep cycle by doing things like waking you up in a lighter sleep stage. But as someone who has made apps like this, it’s not actually the best approach to getting more energy throughout the day. Even light sleep is regenerative. So instead of trying to “beat” your sleep by waking up in a lighter phase, you should probably just get more sleep. Plus, deep sleep decreases as the night progresses. If you are getting a healthy amount of sleep, it won’t make much difference if you wake up 15 minutes before or after your alarm clock. Getting more sleep isn’t possible for a lot of people, but it’s better to sleep more than to rely on sleep cycle-based alarm clocks.

5) People are different, but not that different. Each individual has their own unique Circadian Component and optimum sleep lengths. That being said, about 90% of us need between 7–8 hours of sleep. Circadian differences can be more dramatic because they are entrenched by your habits and impacted by your external environment. You probably have a sense of whether you are a morning person or a night person. By exposing yourself to light earlier in the day and expending more energy in the morning than in the evening, you can theoretically shift your circadian cycle to be earlier — meaning that you will have more energy in the beginning of the day and less energy later in the day. If you always wanted to be a early bird, don’t lose hope! With a few easy tweaks, you can wake up earlier naturally and with way more energy than you’re used to.

6) Not sleeping enough is unhealthier than you think. Every animal on the planet sleeps for a reason. Sleep deprivation causes increased blood pressure, insulin resistance, decreases in cognitive functions, weakened immune system, and more snacking on fatty foods. In the long-term, it’s linked with decreased life span, increased obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, and increases in the common cold and neurological disorders. We should view sleeping like we see eating well and exercising: vital parts of a healthy lifestyle.

7) It’s not just light in the night, it’s light during the day, too. Let’s go back to the Circadian Cycle again. Remember that it is impacted by light? That’s why everyone is always telling you about how you shouldn’t be around screens close to bedtime. Screen exposure before bed is a source of sleep disruption. But there is also something else that you ought to think about that is related to this process. Light exposure during the day also helps entrench your circadian rhythm. Sitting in an office all day disrupts our Circadian Cycle. The artificial office light tricks our brains into thinking that it isn’t actually daytime. By getting outside into natural light as much as possible during the daytime, we can help reorganize our body’s response to light.

8) Being tired makes you grumpy and insensitive. Did you know that having a sense of humor is actually a higher level cognitive capacity? Since sleep deprivation impacts your cognitive faculties, it actually makes you have a worse sense of humor. Losing your ability to empathize and taking more risks also increases with sleep deprivation. Sadly, it seems that our society today is suffering from these symptoms as a whole. Maybe a lack of sleep is to blame.

9) Drugs are usually not the answer. Drugs, like Ambien, are almost never a good option. A lot of people do report being able to fall asleep with drugs or alcohol, but there is one thing to keep in mind when evaluating your sleep: We are really bad at evaluating our own sleep. While you might perceive that you are falling to sleep faster, these drugs can impact the quality of your sleep. Even though you might get more sleep, your sleep is less rejuvenating. Over-the-counter like Melatonin don’t have these sorts of negative effects, but based on my research, many people don’t find Melatonin very effective. It might have a lot to do with the time of day that you take the Melatonin. If you really want to improve your sleep, start with behavioral solutions, such as sticking to a consistent bedtime and wakeup time, before taking a drug. For insomnia, behavioral solutions have been shown to be more successful than all other solutions, and don’t have the negative consequences of drugs.

10) Sleep is a pathway that connects us with our subconscious. Lucid dreaming, or being able to control your own dreams is a skill that you can develop. I’m not an expert yet, but there are a bunch of techniques that can be used to help people take control of their subconscious. Everyone knows about the concept of “Inception” from the movie, but it actually is possible and science is helping to pave the way. I’m currently in the process of developing ways to deepen sleep and strengthen the memories that the sleeper is most interested in. More on that later…

I hope that was helpful! Sign up for Dr. Dan’s blog newsletter at www.sonicsleepcoach.com where I’ll delve more into the science of sleep and startup life. Or schedule a sleep appointment with me and get more out of your sleep!