I just woke up, I want to sleep.
Sleep always seems to be the sacrificial lamb—to stay up late to finish a task, you promise to sleep more tomorrow, but then you discover this addictive new TV series. Procrastination ensues, thus continuing the vicious cycle of insufficient sleep.
Although scientists are debating the exact role of sleep in our day to day lives, lack of sleep can affect our overall health. Our ability to function at maximum capacity depends on how long we sleep, the quality of sleep, as well as when we sleep. Sleep deficiency can therefore interfere with both social functioning and school, causing difficulties focussing, reacting to external stimuli
, and judging the emotions of others. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a shortage of sleep is to blame for some 100,000 traffic accidents, 76,000 injuries, and 1,500 deaths a year in the United States.
Insufficient sleep can also have long-term consequences too, manifesting through medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
What is sleep?
In order to truly understand the role of sleep our lives, it is important to gain a basic understanding of the concept. At its simplest, sleep is a way for the body to replenish energy.
Humans undergo ninety-minute sleep cycles. With each cycle, the proportion of slow wave activity in the brain increases until a state of deep sleep is reached. These slow waves, SWS, indicate the synchronised activity of many nerve cells in the brain. In general, the longer a person stays awake, the more slow waves present. This cycle is followed by brief intermissions of REM sleep, where dreaming occurs. REM, rapid eye movement, takes its name from the twitching eye movements characteristic of this stage of sleep. Brain activity during this stage mirrors what would be recorded when awake.
In terms of sleep regulation, there are two main brain systems: the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis. These, together with hormones and neurotransmitters, inhibit or stimulate various brain centres in response to light and various stimuli, controlling when sleep occurs.
Regarding the terms used to describe lack of sleep, there are various terms out there: insufficient sleep, sleep deprivation, insomnia, fatigue, the list goes on. Sleep deprivation is the same as insufficient sleep. According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD-3), insufficient sleep is defined as “a curtailed sleep pattern that has persisted for at least three months for most days of the week, along with complaints of sleepiness during the day”. Insomnia, on the other hand, as per the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (2014), relies on “having adequate time and circumstances each night to obtain necessary sleep.”
So how much sleep should we be getting? As teenagers, the recommended amount of sleep is 8 to 10 hours. What is interesting is that both too much and too little sleep can impact our health. Studies have shown that consistently having less than 8 hours of sleep can not only result in cognitive issues, but also increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even increases the death rate by 12%. Having too much sleep, over 10 hours, can incur the same issues, with a 30% mortality rate increase. So, it would seem, both too much and too little sleep negatively impacts on our wellbeing.
So how can we establish good sleeping habits?
The key is to improve sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is the development of regular practices that create a better environment for healthy sleeping. This can be achieved through small adjustments to our lives to find the perfect balance.
- Try to get up and go to sleep at the same time every day. This includes avoiding the need for a sleep-in on the weekend. This helps to set the body’s internal clock to allow for better quality of sleep, adapting your natural sleep-wake cycle. When we are not obtaining adequate amounts of sleep during the week and sleep in on the weekends, it can generate jetlag like symptoms that will only further disrupt your sleep cycle. So, despite how warm and cosy the bed feels on a Sunday morning, it might be best to push through and get up.
- Manage your naps. Whilst napping does help to catch up on sleep, it can exacerbate issues by preventing you from falling asleep at night. It is best to limit naps to under half an hour in the afternoon – so maybe general period?
- Limit your screen-time right before bed. Your sleep-wake cycles are regulated by hormones that are, in turn, controlled by light stimuli. Thus, when exposed to the light that mimics daylight, sleepiness is not induced. Another idea is to invest in a blue light filter on your screens or blue light glasses. Your sleep-
- Sleep in a dark, cool room. Obviously, light and noises interfere with our sleep, but having a bedroom that is too hot or too cold can also be a factor. Most people sleep best at around 18oC, but this varies from person to person. Also try to reserve your bed for just sleeping, not studying or watching Netflix, as those distractions hinder your ability to wind down and relax.
- Wind down. An important part of falling asleep is relaxing and achieving an almost meditative state. Many studies have shown that listening to music could be a way to achieve this. Whilst the effects may take around three weeks to manifest, listening to music for 45 minutes either before bed or in bed can help you get to sleep.
- Some people like to track their sleep, either through smart watches and fitness devices, or apps on their phone. This can be useful in identifying if you are obtaining adequate sleep. Some free apps which have caught my eye include Tide, Pzizz and Sleepo, all of which have soundscapes to help the transition to sleep.
Overall, the most meaningful step in creating better sleeping habits is making sleep a priority. Treat it like any other activity you would plan and stick to. There is also a wealth of information online about sleep and different suggestions to help curb bad habits. Whilst some of them may not work, there isn’t too much harm in trying.