Telltale Signs of a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s time we learn to recognize a healthy sleep pattern.

Man asleep on a ferry. Courtesy of the author. He has not had a good night of sleep.

No matter what your circadian rhythm or body clock is, or what position you sleep in, you should be able to recognize a healthy sleep pattern. After a good night of sleep you should feel wide awake and alert shortly after waking up, and remain so for the rest of the day. Your mood is generally good, and you feel no need for a nap. A good night of sleep is a matter of both quantity (it should be the right amount for your age group) and quality (it should be uninterrupted and consist of the right amount of each stage of sleep).

You should not wake up feeling as though you had not slept. You should not feel as though you won’t be able to function until you have had one or more cups of coffee. Struggling to stay awake while driving or falling asleep or feeling uncontrollably fidgety at movies, public meetings, or even in front of the television or computer screen are all signs that you may be sleep deprived. You should not feel as though you are about to fall asleep when reading.

If you do experience these symptoms, it indicates that the amount or the quality of your sleep is inadequate to keep you optimally awake and alert. You probably have a sleep problem if you are sleepy in the morning, feel tired all day, fall asleep when you don’t want to, need to nap, and are irritable and moody when you awaken. It is important to note that boredom does not cause sleepiness. Boredom simply gives the sleepy person the excuse to nod off.

Other symptoms, which will be discussed later in the book, might indi-
cate that you have a medical problem. These include waking up with heart-
burn, chest pain, shortness of breath, or an unusually fast or slow heartbeat. Waking up with a headache more than just occasionally or having to make frequent trips to the bathroom at night could also be signs of a medical problem. You should not wake up unable to move or with severe sweating. Nor should you be thrashing around in a way that could injure yourself or others while you are sleeping. Bed partners should not be telling you that you stop breathing during sleep and that it is scary to watch you sleep. If you have any of these symptoms, they probably relate to a medical problem that should be investigated.

You should also see a doctor if you are an adult who sleeps more than ten or less than five hours a night. Research has shown repeatedly that people who consistently sleep too much (more than ten hours a night) or too little (fewer than five hours a night) have a higher death rate than those who sleep the appropriate length of time. However, the key issue is not the length of sleep. Such abnormal amounts of sleep are rather a symptom of a sleep or medical disorder that may cause or result in death.

The bottom line is that if you are not wide awake and alert throughout the day, if you experience daytime sleepiness, or if you have any of the symptoms I just described, you may have a problem. Your sleep problem could affect you, your family, or the entire world. Consider the cases of some recent U.S. presidents.

They have perhaps the most grueling job in the world. No days off. Stress. Travel. Always on call. This is a recipe for sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation takes its toll. Did lack of sleep almost change U.S. history?

There is widespread speculation that a sleep-deprived Barack Obama was falling asleep during his first debate with Mitt Romney in Denver during the 2012 election. There are several possible explanations for Obama’s sleep problem. The debate preparation resulted in sleepless nights. In addition, the city where the debate took place, Denver, is a mile above sea level. Some people at this altitude develop an abnormal sleep breathing pattern (a variant of sleep apnea) which causes them to have short awakenings during the night, resulting in restless or non-refreshing sleep. Despite reports that suggest Obama is a night owl who goes to bed late and gets up early, apparently getting only four to five hours sleep and sometimes not even that, such sleep deprivation might have accounted for his poor showing in Denver. He needs to sleep more. He mentioned at a prayer meeting that after he leaves office, “I am going to take three, four months where I just sleep.”

President Barak Obama asleep. Prime Minister David Cameron awake. At a NATO meeting in 2014
President Bill Clinton asleep during a speech.

Ronald Reagan fell asleep during an audience with the pope. Bill Clinton had meetings that went through much of the night, as reported in Newsweek: “Over the years Clinton had tried to convince himself he could get by just fine on a few hours of sleep a night. Time and again, he proved himself wrong. Struggling to extricate himself from a previous scandal, Clinton once told a friend, ‘Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.’” William Taft, who weighed as much as 350 pounds (there is to this day an extra-wide “Taft chair” in Woolsey Hall at Yale), had sleep apnea and was sleepy while in office. The most powerful people in the world are sometimes almost incapacitated by their sleep problems.

The extra -wide Taft chair at Yale’s Woolsey Hall

Text is excerpt from The Mystery of Sleep pg 15–17 by Meir Kryger

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