Counting sheep may not be the new yoga, but if it helps you fall asleep, then consider it a healthy practice. In recognition of National Sleep Awareness Week (NSAW) from March 3-9, Philip Gehrman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia shares tips to help you have a fruitful 40 winks.
“Enough studies now show that your brain has to work harder to do the same amount of thinking when you’re tired as when you’re rested,” said Dr. Gehrman. “So when you’re tired, thinking requires a lot more resources and you get fatigued more quickly as a result.”
As evidence of the dangers posed by sleep deficiency, Dr. Gehrman points to disasters like Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. “A lot of the major industrial accidents of the last 100 years are at least partly attributable to people being sleep deprived,” he said. In addition to increasing the risk for making errors, failing to obtain enough sleep can yield a labile or unstable mood, making people very irritable.
To be sure you’re harnessing the benefits that may come from a good night’s rest, Dr. Gehrman has provided the following sleep hygiene tips:
• Avoid caffeine after lunch. Caffeine can linger in your system for 10-12 hours.
• Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it keeps you at a light stage of sleep with poor quality. Even if you sleep for a while, you may not feel well rested the next day.
• Have a wind-down period 30-60 minutes before going to bed. Do relaxing things that don’t require a lot of mental energy.
• Your bed should not be your living room. If you make a habit of watching TV or reading in bed, your brain won’t know what is supposed to happen when you lay down to go to sleep.
• Avoid napping excessively. Napping a lot can make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
• Keep a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking up. This allows your body to develop a natural rhythm and can improve the quality of your sleep.
• If you can’t fall asleep, don’t linger in bed. If you’ve been trying to fall asleep for about 15-20 minutes, whether it’s the beginning or middle of the night, you should get out of bed and do something relaxing. Then come back to bed when you feel ready to sleep.
Need another reason to get a good night’s rest or just an excuse to sleep in? “What studies have been showing is that when people are sleep deprived, or only getting about six hours a night, their bodies actually enter a pre-diabetic state, meaning they’re bodies aren’t regulating its hormones in an efficient manner” explained Dr. Gehrman. This disruption can lead people to have cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate food. “So not only do you process food differently when you’re tired, in a way that is more likely to store food as fat, but you actually crave higher-fat food at the same time, so it’s kind of a double whammy.”
On average, most adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep per night. However, more factors go into the overall quality of your sleep than its duration. As Dr. Gehrman explains, there are two types of sleep, and we need them both for different reasons. Non-REM sleep is our deep, slow-wave sleep which is important for our bodies to reenergize and restore themselves. Whereas the latest research on REM sleep shows it is necessary for learning. “If you go to bed too late, you may miss the opportunity to have REM sleep,” he said. “So if you’re not sleeping on a consistent schedule and at regular hours, then you can miss out on one or the other type of sleep.”