We frequently observe that humans spend roughly a third of their lives sleeping. In my twenties, I found that idea repulsive, as if sleep was absorbing my maximum capacity for living. A bi-product of this sentiment is an entire industry constructed to help keep us awake and limit the hours we sleep.
I was in 7th grade the first time I took a caffeine pill (it had been marketed to truck drivers). I remember being tired before a baseball game and thought the pill would help me focus. Instead, I began to visibly shake and I missed several ground balls for which I in part blamed the caffeine and not my lack of athletic skill.
It was almost 10 years later when the “energy drink” gained popularity and I quickly formed a habit of consuming them if I felt sleepy before I was prepared to turn in for the evening. I knew this was a bad habit, but considered myself lucky I didn’t head down a worse rabbit hole. I was in college when the drug Adderall began to be commonly used on campus, and it seemed very normal (almost praiseworthy) to be burning the candle at both ends.
This approach to living is all wrong. An older and wiser me has discovered that proper sleep management is one of many levers we can use to maximize our capacity to live well.
It is true that the importance of sleep has been largely misunderstood throughout human history, and until recently scientists could not even answer the question of why it is required for mammals to sleep. In modern times, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has published research out of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center that provides these conclusions as to what happens to the brain during sleep:
The brain puts the body to sleep in a series of 5 stages
- Stage 1: Your heart rate and body temperature drop. Your eyes transition from naturally open to naturally closed
- Stage 2: Two groups of cells in your brain switch on (the hypothalamus and parafacial zone) causing unconsciousness and paralyzing the muscles
- Stages 3 and 4: You are asleep. Your blood pressure drops, your muscles relax, and your breathing is slow. This is the most restorative phase of sleep
- Stage 5 (AKA REM sleep): You experience rapid eye movement (REM) and brain cells become very active. This is the dream phase
- This pattern repeats every 90-110 minutes.
- During sleep the brain sends out growth hormones, consolidates memories, and forms connections
How to Get Enough Sleep
The arguments for getting enough sleep are not met with much criticism, as it is easy to feel the negative effects of too little sleep on the brain. How then can we maximize the usefulness of our sleep, and awake feeling well-rested and prepared for the tasks of the day?
It is a difficult question to answer, as brain chemistry varies widely from person to person, but here are some general guidelines that will lead the way to a good nights’ rest, and an easy path out of bed in the morning:
Be thoughtful about the use of sleep aids:
Though sleep aids are an option if you struggle to get to sleep, The Mayo Clinic warns that such remedies are not a magic cure. The choices consist of the following drugs under various brand names: Diphenhydramine, doxylamine succinate, melatonin, and valerian. The first two are sedating antihistamines and have similar negative side effects. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and though it shortens the time to fall asleep, it can also cause daytime drowsiness. Valerian is a plant that is manufactured into supplements and studies find little to no evidence of the substance being useful in any regard.
The best advice around the use of these substances is that their use should be temporary. Long-term use results in the body developing a tolerance to these drugs, removing them as an effective option. As well, they become dangerous when mixed with other substances, particularly alcohol. Consult a doctor before considering any of these options and use them as a last resort if lifestyle changes and holistic approaches fail, and even then, only temporarily.
Avoid screen time after dark:
Light and sound are both stimulants that affect the hormones produced in your brain; particularly melatonin production. Light and sound inhibit melatonin products because they confuse your body into believing you should still be awake. You will sleep better if you ban screen time in your bedroom.
Consider your sleeping situation:
Making some investment in your sleeping situation is worth the cost. Increased relaxation results in better sleep and more productive waking hours. Consider purchasing blackout curtains to eliminate light, a white noise option to drown out noise pollution, and a decent mattress and bedding. If you happen to share sleeping space with a partner, consider using separate bedding to avoid waking when your partner stirs in the night.
Consider different means of waking:
Despite the quality or duration of your sleep, the act of getting out of bed in the morning can still be difficult, particularly if you use an alarm clock that goes “ANCK! ANCK! ANCK!” in the wee hours of the morning. If this describes you, consider purchasing an alarm clock that simulates the rising sun. Any number of models are available that will allow you to awake gradually with slowly increasing levels of light and sound. If you have a particularly difficult struggle with this aspect of sleep management, I recommend positioning your alarm clock across your bedroom, requiring you to get out of bed in order to hit the snooze button.
Is your physical health a barrier to sleep?
Among common sleep disorders include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), insomnia, and narcolepsy. Each of these is a diagnosable illness and treatment is available from medical professionals. It is worthwhile to seek treatment if you feel your difficulty sleeping may be clinical.
Caffeine consumption is a physical factor affecting sleep as well. Not only is caffeine an addictive substance that robs your body of bone density and calcium economy, but it also greatly increases sleep onset (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep). If you are battling sleeplessness, avoid caffeine.
Is your mental health a barrier to sleep?
Stress and sleep exist in what can become a terrible cycle. It is no wonder that sleep deprivation has been used as a means of both psychological warfare and outright torture throughout history. Stress lowers the quality of sleep, and lack of sleep impairs brain function that often causes stress. There is no silver bullet to end stress, and a combination of lifestyle changes, therapy, and sometimes medication under the care of a professional can alleviate this hindrance to a good night’s rest.
Like most disciplines within health and wellness, a focused, multi-faceted approach using common sense and good judgment can help increase your quality of sleep, and as a result, your quality of life.
Curtis grew up in Texas and graduated from Southern Utah University with a master’s degree in Public Administration. He has spent the majority of his career working in field operations and currently works as a talent acquisition manager. His passion for mental health comes from personally witnessing the struggles of individuals experiencing mental health challenges and their suffering from the social stigma with which such illnesses are often met.