Sleep: An Essential Ingredient for Well-Being
“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” --E. Joseph Cossman
I admit that I used to be someone who discounted the importance of sleep—even as a health professional who encouraged good sleep for others. But medical training and the often-unpredictable work hours are not always conducive to ensuring an adequate night’s sleep. Fortunately, things are changing as more research is showing the serious risks of sleep deprivation along with the tremendous benefit of sufficient good quality sleep.
Because sleep involves not doing something and putting our body to rest, it is hard to put it on the priority list when there are so many other competing tasks. The idea of sleep can feel unproductive or even something that only an unambitious person might care about! The truth is just the opposite, though. Good sleep habits can help with focus, attention, creativity, memory, mood, and lowering stress. The physical benefits are remarkable too—including decreased risk for diabetes and heart disease, improved weight, and a stronger immune system.
Here, we’ll review answers to some important questions about sleep.
1. Can you can catch up on sleep on the weekends?
It is tempting to use the weekends as a time to sleep in and catch up on all the missed sleep that you accrued while working late during the week. Unfortunately, we can’t repay that accumulated sleep debt so easily. We never get back those hours that our brains so desperately need for processing and clearing out toxins.
A healthier approach is to try to stick fairly close to your usual wake-up time even on the weekends. While doing that, it’s important to listen to your body, and go to sleep when you are tired. A wind-down period at night with dimmed lights and no screens helps signal your body that it’s time for sleep.
2. Does your body get used to little sleep over time?
In a word, no. Sleep-deprived people perform worse on tests of attention, reaction time, memory, and learning. Not getting enough sleep skews your perception of performance, so sleep-deprived people can convince themselves they are still performing at peak levels. But after they get adequate sleep consistently night after night, they will see an improvement.
3. Does everyone need 8 hours of sleep?
Sleep quantity varies from person to person. The best way to tell how much sleep you need is to see how well-rested you are during a time like a vacation when you can let your body naturally wake up without an alarm. After a few days of this, you can see how many hours result in you feeling well-rested during the day. Of course, if you can’t just take off on vacation to test this out, you can experiment at home with different sleep durations.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, most healthy adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged kids need 9-11 hours, adolescents need 8-10 hours, and those over 65 years old need 7-8 hours per night. And those hours refer to good quality sleep without lengthy interruptions. There is variation, though, so what may be adequate for one person may not be for another.
4. Is a warm, cozy bedroom good for sleep?
As appealing as a warm, cozy bedroom sounds, a cool and dark bedroom at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) is best for good sleep. That optimal temperature varies a bit between people, so it may take a bit of experimenting to find the right setting for you. Your body cooling down in the evening promotes falling asleep and maintaining sleep. A lower bedroom temperature supports this process. But make sure it’s not too cold, as that can interfere with sleep too.
5. Does alcohol before bed improve sleep?
Alcohol is deceiving because it seems to promote sleep onset. But that is not actually good quality sleep—it’s the sedative property of alcohol that makes people drowsy. Alcohol significantly disrupts sleep architecture, which Is the pattern of different phases of sleep that is critical for the metabolic clearing and restorative functions of sleep. Then, early wakening occurs once the effects of alcohol wear off.
To prevent this effect is wise to avoid alcohol near bedtime. And if you are going to drink alcohol, a small amount earlier is less likely to interfere with sleep.
6. Can’t I just drink coffee throughout the day to keep me awake?
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and it certainly can increase alertness. Caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine, which accumulates in the brain throughout the day and leads to feeling tired.
But it can also lead to later bedtimes and insomnia at night because it has a long-lasting effect. The half-life of a cup of coffee is about 5-6 hours, so that means if you have a cup of coffee at 3 pm, you still have half of that caffeine in your system by 9 pm, likely when your body should be getting the signals to wind down. Even when sleep does happen, caffeine affects sleep quality with less deep sleep and more frequent awakenings. Plus, too much caffeine can cause a number of issues, including jitteriness, heart palpitations, and anxiety.
So, that morning cup of coffee is likely okay, but later in the day, caffeine is quite likely to interfere with sleep.
Sleep is an active, restorative process for the brain
Consistency is important—both for bedtime and wake time
Sleep deprivation has negative effects on physical and mental functioning
Sleep needs vary, but most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep
A cool and dark bedroom promotes sleep
Avoid alcohol near bedtime
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening
Sleep is a critical aspect of well-being
“Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.” --Heraclitus