I find few things in the world more satisfying than waking up and feeling refreshed following a good night’s sleep. I feel like I can take on the world and meet any task head-on. In contrast, when I wake up feeling tired, eyes aching, I wonder if I’ll even make it through the day. Little things can seem like major obstacles and my mind sits in a pool of negativity.
Like nearly 50% of people in Canada (and numbers are similar in the United States), I have challenges getting a good night’s sleep from time to time. I can easily fall asleep but will find myself waking up in the middle of the night; my heart racing and anxious thoughts running through my head (a friend of mine calls this the committee meeting in your head). I lie in bed wishing to go back to sleep knowing that I won’t be as productive, or as cheerful as I usually am. This may be because I’m anxious about a deadline coming up, or maybe a problem I’m working on and can’t get it out of my head.
Sleep is a vital part of our lives yet I feel that many of us abuse it and take it for advantage. We think it will always be there because if our body is tired, well of course we’ll be able to sleep. But that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes when we’re overtired from stress or anxiety, it becomes harder to sleep.
Not sleeping enough, and even sleeping too much, has been associated with poor health. Sleeping more than 11 hours per night is associated with a greater than 50% risk for premature death. Regularly getting insufficient sleep is also associated with increased risk for obesity likely the result of eating more to try and offset the fatigue related to lack of sleep. This also results in an increased risk for heart disease.
Poor quality sleep can also affect our mood and functioning during the daytime, which can negatively affect our relationships with people, work productivity and general well-being. While I could cite studies such as this one, I could also refer you to my kids who don’t need a scientific study to tell them that poor sleep makes their dad irritable.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, or are overtired, then one obvious thing to do is to take a nap. However, that may not be as effective as we’d like to think. Like sleeping too much or too little, regular napping has also been associated with high risk for premature death. However, as pointed out in this study, regular napping may be the result of an underlying health condition, and not the problem itself.
For some people, though, napping may actually disturb our longer sleeping patterns at night time by making it harder to fall asleep. However, this likely depends on how long your nap is. Sometimes I’ll take a short 20-30 minute nap and feel refreshed afterwards. This may be due to naps improving cognitive function for a short time afterwards.
So what is the ideal amount of sleep? Based on the above studies, the ideal amount seems to be between the range of 6 to 9 hours per night with recommendations suggesting at least 7 hours per night or between 7 to 9 hours per night for adults. Longer periods of sleep may not be harmful but may be due to some existing health problem making you tired.
When we’re not sleeping well, we obviously can’t force ourselves to sleep but there are a few things we can do to try and turn things around. The first thing to remember is to try not to worry about it. A few years ago I went through a spell where I was waking up and couldn’t get back to sleep. After a few days I was irritable and easily stressed. I started to worry about not sleeping well, which made it worse and I slept even less. Getting out of that spiraling pattern wasn’t easy. I had to work on calming myself and telling myself that it will be okay and I will get through the day even if I didn’t sleep well.
Another key thing is to be consistent in sleeping patterns; when we go to bed and when we wake up. With differences in schedules from weekday to weekend it’s easy to fall prey to social jetlag; going to bed and waking up later on weekends. This is really no different from travelling across time zones (hence the name). As many of us know, when we travel across time zones it usually takes us days to adjust. Likewise, we can’t expect to sleep differently on the weekends and then instantly adjust back when Sunday night comes. As with insufficient sleep, social jet lag is associated with increased risk for adverse health outcomes like diabetes and heart disease.
Other things that will help include limiting screen time before bed. With mobile devices, the screens emit blue light that stimulates us, making it hard to sleep. It’s not just the screen, it can also be what you’re reading that can keep you up. I’ve had many a late night staying up after reading an evening email from a colleague or employee that stirs up emotions. From my experience, I would extend this to watching tense films. I no longer watch The Walking Dead late at night. It doesn’t stop me from getting to sleep but my quality sure suffers with dreams are filled with zombies.
If you’re not sleeping well and feeling sleepy during the day, it might mean that your circadian rhythm (internal clock) needs resetting. Getting exercise and spending time outside in natural light will energize you as they both inhibit melatonin, the sleep hormone. By preventing the release of melatonin during the day (when you don’t want it), it will allow you to keep awake and prepare your body for a nighttime release of melatonin making it easier to fall and stay asleep.
Limiting alcohol before bed also helps. Alcohol gets metabolized 4 to 6 hours following consumption. When this happens, the body perks up elevating heart rate, which can be enough to wake you up in the middle of the night.
Following these things aren’t going to be foolproof but they can lay the foundations for more high quality nights of sleeping, and with a good night’s sleep, that sets us up to perform at our best throughout the day.
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