Sleep. We know it’s important to our well-being, and yet we do a poor job of translating theory into practice.
We whittle away the hours working on projects, watching late-night entertainment, and talking to other people when we should be calling it a night. Some of us pull all-nighters just to get something done right before a deadline. You might even hear someone brag about how little they sleep.
There are more things to do now than ever before. More obligations, more choices, more opportunities. But with the ever-present constraint of 24 hours in a day, the first thing we cut is sleep.
You can see this phenomenon play out clearly over time. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of adults who slept six or fewer hours per night rose from 22 percent in 1985 to 31.6 percent of adults in 2014. That means nearly a third of American adults are not getting sufficient sleep.
Not getting the proper amount of sleep on a nightly basis may not seem problematic at first. You get caught up in something and end up delaying your bedtime by a couple hours. You figure you’ll catch on that shut-eye at a later time. One night isn’t a big deal.
But like all habits, one time can turn into a few times, and then it becomes a recurring pattern. That’s when it becomes a problem. A dangerous problem.
Lack of sleep in modern times
It’s getting harder and harder to get a good night’s rest in today’s world. Our modern 24/7 society runs on excessive electronic usage, increased stress levels, unhealthy food options, and largely sedentary lifestyles. No wonder both the quantity and quality of sleep has gone down.
But sleeping less comes with a price – and a steep one at that. Not getting enough sleep impacts our lives at all levels.
Not resting enough negatively impacts your mood and emotional health. You’re much more likely to be irritable, moody, and antagonizing, which can damage your relationship with others in the long run. You are also more likely to be depressed.
Working on little sleep is a bad idea in all aspects. Your judgment becomes impaired, you become less innovative, and your actions become more impulsive, which leads to irrational decision-making. Sacrificing rest to get those last-minute projects finished means you lose out on productivity later on.
And then there are the health issues. Perpetually operating on insufficient sleep leads to an increased risk of heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, and even death.
Individuals that sleep fewer than six hours per night have a 13 percent higher risk of mortality than someone who sleeps a sufficient seven to nine hours. Even individuals who sleep six to seven hours a night face a seven percent higher mortality risk.
On a national scale, all these individual cases of insufficient sleep lead to high economic losses. Countries such as the U.S., Japan, and the U.K. lose billions of dollars per year because of sleep-deprived employees. When employees don’t get enough rest, they become less productive, less motivated, and are absent more often due to health problems.
Why we sleep
The good news is that once you do start sleeping enough, you can feel the difference almost immediately.
It’s a commonly held thought that sleeping isn’t very beneficial, especially if you can swap that hour spent sleeping with finishing up work, reading, or entertaining. All those other activities seemingly have an immediate output, whether that means achieving your goals, earning money, or feeling positive.
But sleep? Sleeping doesn’t seem useful. You’re just lying still and doing nothing. At least, that’s how it appears on the surface level. It turns out, a lot happens during those quiet hours.
Sleeping lets your brain strengthen and store memories, a crucial part of remembering information long-term. During the day, a good night’s rest improves your cognition, so that you can learn faster and gain more knowledge. Your awareness and alertness are increased, which improves your impulses and snap decisions.
The benefits of sufficient sleep go beyond the brain, however. It replenishes your immune system for improved health, regulates appetite, and improves your body’s metabolism. During sleep, your body repairs the tears in your body’s muscle tissue so that you can be more active and energized when you’re awake.
As you can see, the benefits of sleep are numerous. They far outweigh those late nights spent doing other activities. But how much sleep is enough?
The Amount of Sleep You Need
The older you get, the less sleep you need.
A panel performed research for the National Sleep Foundation to determine the amount of sleep healthy individuals need across their lifespan. The recommended amount for children is between 9 and 11 hours, for teenagers is 8 and 10 hours, for adults aged 18 to 64 years is 7 and 9 hours, and for older adults aged 65 and over is 7 and 8 hours.
These numbers represent the range for most people, assuming they are in good health and don’t suffer from sleep disorders. Chances are that your optimal amount falls within the recommended amount according to your stage in life.
You should also consider your own circumstances. By looking at your health, day-to-day activities, and sleeping habits, you can figure out how whether you’re getting enough sleep. Try answering the questions below:
- How much energy do you exert during the day?
- Do you feel awake, productive, and positive on your current sleep levels?
- Are you aware of any health issues that affect how much sleep you need?
- Do you tend to sleep in when you have days off work?
- Do you rely on stimulants (i.e. caffeine, tobacco) to stay awake?
Answering these questions will help you assess whether you’re currently getting enough sleep.
But even though sleeping needs vary, don’t be fooled into thinking you can operate on just five hours of sleep. Your mind might be telling you everything’s fine, but your thinking and reaction can drop without you noticing it.
Long story short, you really do need at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. This applies no matter who you are. According to Dr. Thomas Roth at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, “The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population, and rounded to a whole number, is zero.”
How to Rest Well at Night
Armed with a basic knowledge of sleep, you can improve your resting hours by making some changes. When you make those minor improvements, you dramatically improve your health and the quality of your waking hours. Here’s how:
Avoid stimulants well before bedtime. Avoid caffeine within seven hours before sleep, nicotine within four hours (if at all), and alcohol within three hours. A nightcap actually impedes on your sleep quality because it suppresses rapid eye movement sleep. Even if you don’t feel the effects, these substances remain in your bloodstream for hours afterward.
Take a short afternoon nap. Naps are common in Spain and the Mediterranean. In Japan, more companies are allowing and encouraging employees to take naps so that they’re well-rested for work. A short nap of 20 to 30 minutes in the afternoon can help you to stay alert and productive without affecting your sleep at night.
Keep your bedtime consistent throughout the week. You might find yourself feeling groggy on Monday morning because you woke up earlier than you did on Saturday and Sunday. When possible, set your bedtime around the same time on weekends. Also, give yourself a chance to do something relaxing on Sunday to prepare for the week ahead.
Avoid bright screens before bed. Using electronic devices such as smartphones and computers within a few hours of bedtime can impede on your ability to sleep. They emit bright blue light that suppresses melatonin, a hormone that times your sleep cycle. You can try using blue light blocking glasses to reduce eyestrain and improve sleep.
Sleep and Its Invisible Benefits
Cutting on sleep may seem like the easiest way to prolong your waking hours, and thus, how much you get done. But depriving yourself of rest deprives you of the quality of your work, health, and brain. The effects might not be clear from the onset, but their impact can be felt in the way you think and act.
Conversely, a night of good rest improves your quality of life dramatically. Good sleep is like taking a blurred photo and sharpening it into high resolution. If you didn’t notice that something was lacking before, you definitely feel it afterward.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD – Professor Walker, who is a director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, explains how a lack of sleep can have devastating consequences on just about every aspect of our life. The book shows how we can use sleep to improve our mood, learning, energy levels, and overall health.