The five golden rules of sleep: Ignore them at your own risk

In a culture that devalues sleep, we think we can accomplish more if we sleep less; nothing could be further from the truth

Co-authors: Lauren Seitz, Emily Coolen

Why do we persist in thinking that it’s efficient, effective, and macho to function on as few hours of sleep as possible?

For one, we simply don’t understand the importance of sleep and the serious deleterious consequences of sleep deprivation on health and performance. These include a significantly higher risk of high blood pressure [heart attacks and strokes], type II diabetes, depression, influenza, skin and allergy conditions, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. Furthermore, sleep deprivation disrupts cognitive processing, including acquisition, retention and recall of information, as well as diminishing our creativity, and critical thinking skills.

Along with not understanding sleep’s importance, many of us suffer occasionally from one or more of the 89 known sleep disorders and are unaware of the proper treatments. In a culture that devalues sleep, we think we can accomplish more if we sleep less. Nothing could be further from the truth. After 16 hours of being awake, we are incapable of performing efficiently and effectively; mistakes are made and accidents and illness often follow. The bottom line is that most of us have no clue as to what constitutes good sleep hygiene and how to obtain a great night’s sleep for a better tomorrow.

Here are five golden rules that will help you get great sleep.

1. Determine your personal sleep requirement

How many hours of sleep do you get per night? The majority of us are moderately to severely sleep deprived. In fact, 71 per cent do not meet the recommended 7.5 – 9.25 hours per night.

Determine and meet your sleep requirement every night. It’s hard-wired, not adaptable! There are individual differences that are genetically determined. For example, if both of your parents are short sleepers, you may be one of the lucky five per cent of the population who can perform satisfactorily on less than six hours of sleep per night.

An adequate night’s sleep should leave you feeling wide-awake and energetic all day long, with little to no need for an afternoon nap. If you experience daytime sleepiness, start by adding 15 minutes to your normal routine each night until you feel fully rested all day long. This is your set point for a great night’s sleep.

The majority of us are moderately to severely sleep deprived

To test your finding, you should subtract 15 minutes of sleep for a night to see if it affects your energy levels the next day. If you are a bit sleepy, you’ll know that you are not quite meeting your required amount of sleep. Most people will find they should add at least one more hour to their current sleeping time. If that’s you, you’ll quickly realise that you never really knew what it’s like to be fully alert and at your best physically, emotionally and cognitively. We need to value sleep. To be healthy and a peak performer, sleep is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

2. Establish a normal sleep/wake schedule

While you may be tempted to make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping longer on the weekends, this can be very disruptive to your circadian rhythm. Instead, try to go to bed and get up at, or near, the same time every day. We only have one biological clock that determines our wakefulness and sleepiness, not one for the weekday and one for the weekend.

We must synchronise the sleepy phase of our biological clock with the hours we spend in bed and the waking phase for the hours we are out of bed. If we vary our sleep/wake schedule, it has the same effect of eastbound jet lag. We will have daytime sleep inertia, feel drowsy and lack mental clarity throughout the day.

Take a hot bath, do some easy stretching, yoga, or meditation before sleeping to help you relax

3. Use these proven strategies for great sleep

Get plenty of exercise everyday, even if it’s just taking the dog for a 20-minute walk after dinner. Avoid heavy cardio workouts within an hour of bedtime. Eliminate caffeine after 2pm. Even decaffeinated coffee contains small amounts of caffeine, so avoid that too if possible. Refrain from drinking alcohol within three hours of bedtime. Alcohol in large amounts is a stimulant, not a sedative. Therefore, while you may feel that alcohol helps you fall asleep, it actually disturbs your sleep every 90 minutes thereafter.

Be sure to avoid the use of electronics within one hour of bedtime. Television, computer screens, and iPads contain blue daylight spectrum light that blocks the secretion of melatonin, thus making it more difficult to fall asleep when you turn off the lights. If you must watch these screens, be sure to use blue daylight spectrum blocking glasses. Make sure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool. You can also take a hot bath, do some easy stretching, yoga, or meditation before sleeping to help you relax.

4. Get one block of continuous sleep

To give you adequate nocturnal sleep in one block of time, avoid naps and falling asleep in the reclining chair after dinner. Those with insomnia must avoid any napping. Continuous sleep does not mean totally uninterrupted sleep. It’s completely normal to wake up several times during the night. Don’t worry if you can fall back to sleep within 20 minutes. If you do find yourself awake for longer, you might remain awake for as long as 90 minutes. Get out of bed, keep the lights low and read a book or do some light housework rather than toss and turn in bed.

Sleep loss doesn’t disappear by itself—you have to pay it back

5. Make up for lost sleep

For every hour you are awake, you increase your sleep debt. It takes one hour of sleep to make up for every two hours of being awake. If you are up for 16 hours, you need to sleep eight hours that night to fully restore your energy.

Sleep loss doesn’t disappear by itself—you have to pay it back. Compare your sleep to a bank account; if you make a withdrawal, the balance is reduced until you put money back into your account. Similarly, if you have a sleep debt, your loss accumulates. Therefore, make up for lost sleep as soon as possible. You can’t do it all at once, but after a week of adequate sleep you should be back on track.

Lauren Sietz is pursuing a Master's degree in Physician Assistant Studies.
Emily Coolen is a certified personal trainer and sleep educator.

This was first published in the June 2016 of Complete Wellbeing.

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