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I have always been of the mindset that getting a full 8 hours of sleep per night was more of a guideline or best-case scenario rather than an important target which we must use all reasonable endeavours to achieve. The importance of sleep does not seem to be drilled home in the same way as watching your diet, not smoking and drinking eight glasses of water a day, for example. In fact, citing one’s ability to function on very little sleep appears to be increasingly thought of as a virtue, particularly in the corporate realm. However, after having read Matthew Walker’s book on sleeping, Why We Sleep, I expect very few would still continue to boast of their ability to function on less than 7-8 hours in light of the startling physiological damage and productivity hampering such sleep deprivation can cause. The supposed advantage gained in spending less time in bed does not appear to translate into more productive waking time at all.
Why We Sleep opens with the startling statistic that two thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep (note: sources for statistics are included within the book). The situation has become so dire within industrialised nations that the World Health Organisation has now declared a sleep loss epidemic. This would perhaps suggest that I am not alone in my ignorance of the importance of the elusive 8 hours. However, what is more frightening is the list of health problems which Walker proceeds to reel off which are encouraged by sleep deprivation (including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and psychiatric conditions). Returning to the matter of our corporate colleagues who continue to brag about their sleep deprivation, the reality is that, in the short term, those “extra hours” gained in forgoing sleep will be far less effective (as will the rest of the day spent in that tired state) and, in the long term, their sleep deprived routine is likely to have an insidious effect on their health.
Even if such individuals protest that they do not “feel” tired on less sleep, Walker explains that there comes a point at which you do indeed acclimatise to the sleep deprivation and become less aware of it. However, this is not to be construed as your body adapting to the stresses of its environment and functioning as normal (say, in the same manner as exercising a muscle). On the contrary, Walker explains that you are merely acclimatising to a new sub-optimal, zombie-like state and sacrificing your true potential. For that reason, other than a very exceptional few who are genetically wired to be able to operate on less sleep, we do not have a choice in the matter – if you want to be at your best, you need to prioritise your sleep.
There are myriad reasons that we can suffer from sleep deprivation. Naturally, there are people who are prevented from achieving anything close to a full eight hours for reasons outside of their control (obvious candidates being new parents). Equally, the modern age we live in can also play havoc on our attempts to get some shut-eye (those with noisy neighbours, stressful careers or a worrisome nature will no doubt attest to this). As such, I’m not suggesting that it is within everyone’s control to improve their sleep, but to the extent you can improve your chances I would genuinely recommend that you try what you can to tilt the odds in your favour. Rather than just regurgitating what Walker has written, I thought that it would be useful for me to set out some tips which I have used to improve my sleep quality and duration:
1. Going to Bed Earlier
This may seem obvious, but how many times have you found yourself in bed at a reasonable hour all set to drift off, only to succumb to reading or browsing your phone for half an hour? By doing this, you are sacrificing sleep opportunity (one of the key tenets of Why We Sleep is to provide yourself with sufficient sleep opportunity) and damaging your chances of getting those precious eight hours.
I appreciate that some demands on your time will be outside of your control (whether that’s an all-consuming project at work demanding overtime or some other commitments/responsibilities), but in relation to things like watching Amazon Prime or browsing the web, I now make a habit of closing these down at 9:30pm on the dot so that I can aim to be in bed by 10pm (and wake up for work at 6am). Of course, even this routine is not ideal (as I am banking on being able to fall asleep fairly promptly if I am to get close to 8 hours), but I also feel it important to make some time for decompression/entertainment during the work week.
2. Not Eating Too Late
This is a tricky one, particularly for those who work long hours and who have a longer commute. However, I have found that eating a heavy meal post-8pm is not conducive to getting off to sleep (I tend to end up lying there with borderline indigestion regretting having eaten so much just before bed). My solution is therefore to eat earlier (if possible), or to reduce my portion size (if I get in too late to eat at a reasonable time).
3. Block Out External Stimuli With Headphones
I wouldn’t say that I am a light sleeper once I am asleep, but I definitely find it difficult to drift off in the first instance. If I am not just lying there ruminating over something, I will find myself inadvertently keeping myself awake by listening out for noises in the street outside. Living right next to a fairly busy road can be frustrating if you are trying to get to sleep with cars going past or merry pedestrians talking at sonorous volume, but what’s worse is the anticipation of noise.
If there is a constant hum of noise, then you’re probably not going to be too disrupted when trying to drift off. However, when the noise is intermittent, it is the moments of silence which seem capricious. All too often have I been on the verge of drifting off when all of a sudden an unsociably loud engine comes roaring past and shocks you awake once again.
To counteract this intermittent disruption, I have resorted to wearing headphones to bed at night. By listening to a constant loop of rain sounds (<a href=”http:// “>Amazon Music has a great selection of natural sound recordings, my personal favourite being heavy rain – click here to check it out), I have been able to mitigate the disrupting impact of de-muffled cars and revellers. By looping a gentle rainfall recording, the aforementioned peaks and troughs of nighttime activity can be smoothed out and become far less disturbing. In fact, passing cars often just blend into the recording as a sort of background thunder.
4. Cut Out Coffee, Tea and Caffeinated Soft Drinks After Midday
First things first – I am a big coffee drinker, so I share in your disappointment in having to cut down on it. However, reducing your intake and avoiding drinking caffeine in the afternoon is bound to produce an improvement in your ability to get to sleep efficiently if you generally consume a lot of coffee/tea/Coca Cola at all hours.
As Why We Sleep points out, caffeine is so successful for tired office workers as it effectively blocks and inactivates the receptors in your brain which would ordinarily be occupied by adenosine (which is responsible for sending sleepiness signals to the brain). Although caffeine levels peak around 30 minutes after consumption, it will persist in your system for much longer than this. In fact, caffeine’s half life (the time it takes for your body to remove 50% of the caffeine concentration in your system) is 5 to 7 hours. This means that if you have a coffee after dinner (depending on the time and strength of the coffee), it is likely that over 50% of the caffeine content will still be circulating through your brain tissue at the point when you settle down to sleep. As a result, sleep will not occur as smoothly while your body is still in the process of trying to clear your system.
To reduce caffeine’s impact on my ability to get a good night’s sleep, I now limit myself to just two coffees per day in the morning (and having re-read the caffeine passage in Why We Sleep, I am even considering cutting this down further and bringing my cutoff time forward to 11am).
5. Block Out Morning Light By Investing in Some Blackout Blinds and a Sleeping Mask
During the summer months, the evenings are long and the dawn arrives earlier. In principle, this is great. In practice, when the sun is streaming through the gaps in your curtains and rudely rousing you from your sleep ahead of schedule, these early sunrises feel a little unwelcome. In other words, unless you’re getting to bed at 8pm, that pre-5am sunrise is going to be brutal.
If you are also finding yourself being woken prematurely by the sunlight, now would probably be a good time to work out a plan for keeping your room as dark as possible in the face of increasingly early sunrises (especially if you’re more of a night owl).
My solution has been to add a blackout blind behind my curtains. This has worked a treat in dampening down that powerful morning sunshine which would generally blast through any minor crack in the curtain fabric.
Despite the addition of the blackout blind, I have still found that the sunlight is able to find its way through any breaks in the curtain/blind defences. As such, to add further horsepower to my light blocking endeavours, I have also invested in a sleeping mask. This combination has really done the trick in preventing that early morning summer sun from rudely rousing me from an otherwise restful sleep. I have embedded a link to a blind and sleeping mask similar to my own below:
6. Read “Why We Sleep”
The inspiration for this article came from my reading of Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. If you’re interested in delving much deeper into the scientific element of the importance of sleep, this book is incredible. Be warned though: its exploration of the damaging effects of getting insufficient sleep is quite terrifying (particularly if you are guilty of neglecting sleep). However, if its shocking revelations serve as an impetus for you to change your ways, then all the better. It has certainly made me reassess.
I have placed links to the book on Amazon USA and UK below so you can read more about it and other user reviews: