We are sleep-deprived. Let’s not pretend we’re not!
I was. This is what I did to overcome it.
Why do I feel sleepy at odd hours despite having a full night’s sleep? Why am I energized on some days and lethargic on others? Why am I tired even after taking a balanced diet and exercising? If you have similar questions you’re not alone; however, it’s important to find out why and take steps to fix it.
I had the same questions and this is what I found.
Here’s my story:
One day, while browsing the library catalog, I stumbled upon a book, “Why We Sleep” by Mathew Walker, a sleep scientist, and neurologist at the University Of California, Berkeley.
The book has been eye-opening for me. It talks about the power of sleep and its benefits, such as boosting immunity, empowering our brain to make logical decisions, recharging our emotions, and regulating our appetite. It also explains the devastating health consequences of chronic sleep deprivation like high blood pressure, heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression, and obesity.
I realized while reading the book that our ignorance and belief in sleep myths can lead to poor sleep habits. It became clearer to me as I read on, that my belief in sleep myths like 5 hours of sleep or less is sufficient, can catch up on sleep on the weekends, the body gets used to sleeping less, deprived me of a full night’s rest causing unnecessary sleepiness and tiredness at odd hours.
After separating myths from sleep facts, I spent some time understanding how sleep works.
This piece of information is essential in adopting a healthy sleep routine. Don’t skip it.
Here’s what I learned.
Sleep - We are inactive while sleeping, but our brain is working consolidating memories, cleansing toxins, strengthening our immune system to fight diseases and infections.
Two factors that decide when to sleep and when to stay awake:
1) Circadian Rhythms - Also known as the biological clock or 24-hour cycle is part of the body’s internal clock situated inside our brain. Circadian rhythms help regulate hormone production, body temperature, appetite, sleeping, and waking.
Some Circadian rhythm facts:
A properly aligned circadian rhythm helps us fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. But, an off-track circadian rhythm can create sleeping problems, including insomnia (having trouble sleeping and staying asleep).
Know your circadian rhythm or chronotype: morning person ( early bird ) or night person ( night owl ) and then work around it to get better sleep.
Circadian rhythm changes with age. Teenage sleep is naturally delayed by about 2 hours according to sleep experts. Biologically, teens will have the urge to sleep late and wake up late.
Conversely, adults as they age, go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.
2) Sleep Pressure- is created by melatonin, a hormone found naturally in our body. Melatonin makes us feel sleepy and ready for bed. Blue light-emitting devices like smartphones and TVs and consuming caffeine before bedtime can impact the production of melatonin and create sleep problems.
Have you wondered what happens when we sleep? We cycle through different stages of sleep while our brain and body carry out essential functions to keep us healthy.
To understand sleep deprivation, it’s important to understand two types of sleep. The information below is informative and worth a read.
Two types of sleep we cycle through each night:
NREM or non-rapid eye movement (It has 3 stages)
REM or rapid eye movement
In stages one and two of NREM, our sleep is relatively light. Our heartbeat and breathing slow down, body temperature drops, and eye movement stop.
Stage three of NREM, called deep sleep, is also known as slow-wave sleep or delta sleep. Heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest level. Waking up at this stage is difficult. If we do, we may feel groggy and confused for several minutes.
During the NREM stage, our body restores and repairs cells, tissues, and muscles and strengthens immunity.
REM comes next. In REM, breathing becomes faster and irregular, heart rate and blood pressure increase to waking levels. Most of our dreams occur here. REM sleep decreases with age.
REM is believed to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity.
We cycle through periods of REM and non-REM sleep 4–6 times every night. Since each cycle is roughly 90 minutes long, most adults need seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, to let our brain and body do their job while we sleep.
Insufficient sleep leads to irritability, daytime fatigue, and impacts our ability to pay attention, learn new things, and think clearly.
Chronic sleep deprivation (insufficient sleep for an extended period) can put us at risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, anxiety, depression, and obesity.
The good news is by adopting a few healthy sleep habits recommended by sleep experts, we can sleep well at night and enjoy most benefits REM and non-REM sleep offer.
Sharing my experience in fitting healthy sleep habits recommended by sleep experts into my life.
1. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule- Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, is the best advice for better sleep.
Earlier, I had a stable wake-up time but irregular sleep time. Establishing a consistent sleep time was a struggle, but with constant practice, it improved. My sleep-wake time got better by adding a relaxing bedtime routine.
2. Calming bedtime routine- According to experts, relaxing activities like a warm bath, reading physical books, and light stretches, can settle our body and mind into a calmer state and put us to bed faster. Also, blue light-emitting devices such as smartphones and laptops can trick our circadian rhythm into believing it’s daytime even after sunset, therefore delaying sleep.
My sleep-wake routine improved significantly after replacing my tv and browsing time with relaxing activities like journaling, meditation, and reading physical books. Relaxing activities done consistently help signal our brain it’s time to sleep.
3. Take the recommended hours of sleep- The amount of sleep a person needs depends on age and other factors like genes. 7–9 hours of sleep at night is recommended by most experts for an adult.
I was able to find my ideal sleep hours by practicing going to bed and waking at the same time every day( best tip). Waking up refreshed, energized, and in a good mood indicate I’ve slept well.
4. Avoid late afternoon naps- It is recommended to take naps in the early afternoon when our body experiences a natural circadian dip and to keep them short ( 20–30min ) to avoid sleep delays.
With sufficient sleep at night, my urge for afternoon naps reduced significantly. Earlier, I took long naps and suffered from sleep inertia (feeling groggy and disoriented ), a stage when we go into a deep sleep and feel terrible after waking. But now, I take naps, if needed, for 20–30 minutes and before 3 pm. It is possible to take a short nap and feel rested and energized.
5. Dark, cool, and electronic free bedroom- Experts suggest room temperatures of about 65–70 degrees Fahrenheit (18–21 degrees celsius), completely dark room, and keeping all blue light-emitting devices outside the room for better sleep.
After learning that even a lowlight can increase nighttime awakenings and negatively affect our circadian rhythm, I keep my room completely dark with no nightlight on. To avoid nighttime falls, I keep a flashlight and nightlight close by. I also keep all the electronic devices out of the room before sleep to resist any temptation of checking my email or messages before bedtime and after waking up.
Dimming lights before bedtime is said to help with melatonin release (a hormone that helps with sleep).
6. Avoid large meals close to bedtime- It’s best to finish dinner 2–3 hours before bed. Our body gets more time to digest food and prevent heartburn.
Earlier, my meals were eaten at irregular times, but now I finish my dinner before 7:30 pm. I stopped eating spicy food at night to avoid any interference with sleep (indigestion and increased body temperature).
7. Avoid caffeine late in the evening- Caffeine is a stimulant (a drug that increases the activity of the brain and nervous system) that is found in certain teas, coffee, colas, and chocolates. Research shows it interferes with circadian rhythm, delaying sleep if consumed close to bedtime. It is recommended to take caffeine at least six hours before sleep.
Abandoning caffeine was not an option because bonding with family and friends over a cup of hot chocolate and tea is something I enjoy. However, I am mindful of the time and amounts of caffeine I consume (2 cups = 5 ounces each). According to experts, most adults can safely consume up to 200–300 mg (about 4 cups )per day.
8. Don’t lie in bed awake- If you toss and turn in bed for more than 25 minutes, leave the bed and do some light activity like reading until you begin to feel tired.
Earlier, I would lie in bed waiting for sleep to come. Now, I pick something boring to read in bed and snooze off in no time. A steady sleep-wake routine has reduced my nighttime awakenings. If I wake up, I go back to sleep quickly.
9. Avoid alcohol before bedtime- Alcohol might put you to bed quickly, but it interferes with sleep without your awareness. It robs you of getting good quality sleep, especially REM sleep, which is important for memory and learning. Most experts recommend avoiding alcohol at least 3 hours before bed.
10. Get some exercise daily- Exercise contributes to good sleep. People who have a regular exercise routine, enjoy better sleep efficiency. Natural daylight helps regulate circadian rhythm for better sleep. It is suggested to avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime.
With walking trail minutes away from home, I feel fortunate to take the early morning sun and breathe fresh air every day for at least 40 minutes.
If you’re unable to follow through with all the recommendations, try to identify the habits most disruptive to your sleep and overcome them by altering those habits.
I realized too much exposure to blue light-emitting devices (tv, smartphones, laptops) before bed and irregular sleep time were disruptive to my quality sleep. Adopting consistent sleep-wake time and a sleep routine (relaxing activities) before bed was very helpful. It led to other effective habits and unbelievable benefits.
Here are some benefits:
- I’m waking up without an alarm, fully rested, and ready to go.
- With a consistent good night’s rest, I’m able to maintain my energy level throughout the day and get more done in less time.
- I rarely feel sleepy or tired during the day hence little or no naps now. To be fair, I lose my steam around 8 pm and I’m asleep by 10 pm.
- I’m beginning to enjoy jobs like cooking that had become tedious. If I see interesting recipes I try making them right away.
- Good rest keeps me calm to carry on. Better sleep=Better mood
- Restorative sleep has made me wiser and better informed. This is how: I listen more and understand others better. I’m able to process and retain information efficiently.
- Sleep habits have helped me maintain a healthy weight and reduced my junk food snacking.
If you feel you are not on task lately, lacking focus, energy, and alertness, experiencing sleepiness, irritability, and tiredness at odd hours you might want to re-evaluate your sleep habits.
- Prioritize yourself
- Separate sleep myths from facts
- Stop sacrificing sleep for activities like browsing the phone or watching tv into the wee hours of the morning
- Make sure to get Quantity (optimal hours) and Quality (right amounts of NREM and REM) sleep
- For quality sleep, take natural light and a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and practice healthy sleep habits during the day. At night our body and brain work optimally to remove toxins, consolidate memory, repair cells, build muscles, boost immunity to keep infections away.
With recent sleep research and findings linking sleep to mental and physical health, it is becoming necessary to prioritize sleep. Let’s stop kidding ourselves that we don’t need more sleep. Instead, let’s start asking: are we getting enough? If not, we know what to do now.
We spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping. Let us sleep well and make it count.
Thanks for reading! Pass it on to increase awareness about the power of sleep.
These are my experiences. Always consult your doctor for medical advice.