To Dream, Perchance to Sleep
by Todd Hatton
Yesterday morning, I began writing a blog post on a particular topic and ended up writing about something totally unrelated. When I went back to figure out what happened, a massive yawn almost split my head in half. Instead of my finding the problem, the problem had found me. I hadn’t slept very well or long enough the night before, and now I was paying for it.
I love sleep. I’d smile saying the word even if the act of doing so didn’t force me to. The very thought of curling up for a prolonged snooze under cozy blankets makes me drool. Yet, I’m not doing it enough.
So what, exactly, is my problem?
First, it’s not just my problem. The National Sleep Foundation says one in three Americans is overtired because they’re not sleeping enough. So how much is enough?
A survey of several sleep-related websites shows no one number for everyone, but The Better Sleep Council reports the average amount for adults is around seven to eight hours a night, although some people may need more. Their rule of thumb for determining the proper amount is simple enough: if you sleep more on the weekend than you do during the week, you’re not getting enough Monday through Friday. Of this, I am horribly, horribly guilty.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a lack of sleep accrues like interest, creating what’s termed a “sleep debt.” This deficit depresses our immune systems, raises blood pressure and insulin resistance, impairs cognitive functions, and reduces levels of leptin, a molecule secreted by fat cells the brain uses to inhibit appetite.
All right, so we all know now that a lack of sleep is a big problem. What do we do about it? The National Sleep Foundation provides a list of tips and strategies that range from the rather obvious (e.g., abstaining from caffeine early in the afternoon) to the counterintuitive (e.g., if you can’t sleep, don’t toss and turn, get up and do something relaxing). The New York Times even recommends an optimal temperature for sleep, around 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything outside that range makes us restless.
Those of us whose schedules preclude a normal sleep schedule have the unique challenge of trying to sleep when all the external cues say we should be awake. We’re fighting our circadian rhythms, and in many cases, we’re losing the battle.
All those years of evolution have wired our wakefulness to the light we perceive. It gets dark and we get tired, like most other diurnal creatures. There are, however, weapons we can use to even the odds. Heavy curtains over the windows, for example, mimic nighttime and facilitate sleep. Conversely, nighttime risers can trick the brain into wakefulness with bright light.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the good, old-fashioned nap. Possibly the greatest lesson one learns in kindergarten, a decent siesta has been found to improve mood and increase productivity. The Guardian newspaper has a decent guide on how to take the ideal nap, and it even comes with pictures, in case you’re too tired to read. Well, read anymore, that is. Pleasant dreams!