I have recently been researching, listening, and reading about sleep–an issue I gathered was more important than I probably appreciated, and one that is an area of personal weakness. As I looked deeper at this subject, one of the resources I realized was likely worth reading was the book Why We Sleep, by Dr. Matthew Walker, a leading sleep scientist. It was published in 2017, and became a New York Times best-seller. Wow! This is definitely a “scared straight” read on the subject. I will not attempt to summarize what science is revealing about the importance of sleep to, well, everything human. Please grab the book for that. But, here are some of the points that resonated the most with me:

  • Nearly all of us need 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, regularly, to satisfy the long list of physical and psychological necessities that sleep fulfills.
  • During what time period our own bodies want to get those hours varies quite a lot, and is controlled by our “circadian rhythm,” which is genetically set (not trained!). This means some people are set to sleep from, say, 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., while others are just as set to sleep from 12:00 a.m. (midnight) to 8:00 a.m. But, it also slides around depending on our age, so kids tend to be earlier, swing to much later in the teens, average out during adulthood, and go early again as we age. So there is a reason teenagers like to stay up late and sleep in.
  • The physiological and psychological “necessities” fulfilled by sleep are exactly that—with dire consequences if they are not fulfilled. We cause ourselves brain damage, mental impairment, social skill handicaps, shortened life, increase of every conceivable illness, by depriving ourselves of sleep. This is not hyperbole.
  • The various functions that make proper sleep essential take place in three major stages—light NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, REM sleep, and deep NREM sleep.
  • Each of these stages accomplishes different purposes. I can’t come close to summarizing those here. But, for example, REM sleep is when we dream, and is shown to be where our brains develop and, surprisingly, actually perform, many creative activities and social-skill development. Deep NREM sleep is when our short-term memory stores are moved to longer-term, making it possible to learn new information and retain what we’ve learned. Inadequate deep NREM sleep, both before and after study, kills our ability to learn and retain by as much as 40%–like the difference between acing an exam or failing it. It may not be as obvious, but the same thing happens to our ability to solve a work problem.
  • At every stage of life, from infant to old age, the dire consequences of inadequate sleep on function, repair, and development are present, with both temporary and permanent effects.
  • Much of brain development (intelligence, emotional stability, etc,) takes place while we sleep, and is not completed until our mid-20s. So, until then, missing sleep can actually cause an underdeveloped brain.
  • Forced schedules, artificial light, tech devices, caffeine, alcohol, and thermostats have all contributed to screwing up our sleep patterns.
  • Consequently, over 50% of adults in developed nations do not get near enough sleep to meet all the significant functions only sleep can fill.

Of course, the experts have suggestions about how to improve sleep. Here are the things I’ve started doing as a result of my recent research:

  • I am more careful to be in bed for at least 8 hours. I can’t get 7 to 8 hours of sleep unless I am in bed for at least that long. Duh.
  • I have paid better attention to what my own body wants to do on going to sleep and getting up. Mine gravitates toward 9:30 to bed and 5:30 to get up. My wife can hit the pillow at 8:00 p.m. and be out. When I try to do that, I lie there for an hour. On the other end, I don’t need an alarm to wake up by 5:30 a.m., but will for times much earlier than that. As part of following my wiring more, I am using an alarm a lot less (Saturday long runs are still really early, so that day is a major exception).
  • I’ve start lowering the lights in the house throughout the evening. And, due to the really adverse effects of LED (blue) light on our body’s sleep signals (particularly melatonin), I try to get off my laptop computer about an hour before bed (should be longer—getting there).
  • In addition to the “lighting” signals our bodies use to start going to sleep, we also use temperature. Our core temperature needs to drop, so the room temperature, clothing, and bedding should be adjusted to let us dissipate heat. The sleep scientists say that about 65 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal. Wow! I haven’t gone that low, but I’ve worked my thermostat setting down and am working on going lower (as my wife allows).
  • I cut off caffeine close to noon.
  • It would be ideal to not eat much after dinner, but I am often still getting running calories back. But, I keep food consumption light later in the evening.
  • Noise bothers me. I am glad I did not pass this on to my kids. I need the setting to be pretty quiet. I do keep earplugs handy to help when needed. However, they don’t block much, and I’d love to find a better way to block out some noise (headphones are better—but wake me up if I turn, etc). This (and getting rid of my cat, who is quite nocturnal) would do the most for the quality of sleep I get.

In spite of the struggles I still have to consistently sleep well, I do much better when I get these elements right: In bed long enough, at a time that is natural, after allowing my eyes to ease into darkness, at a cool temperature, and without a lot of noise. If your biggest sleep problem is just motivation, being convinced this matters enough to make some sacrifices, then the book Why We Sleep should do it. And, there is enough science in it to help put you to sleep while you read.

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