Sleep is a fascinating and bizarre behaviour. We race around all day with our schedule planned to the last minute, then we lie down and hibernate for several hours.
The average person sleeps 36% of their life, which means that if we make it to 90 years old, we will have spent 32 of those years asleep.
Not surprisingly, some individuals, such as Thomas Jefferson, have viewed sleep as a pointless waste of time and attempted to function on very little. But sleep has a powerful allure and such individuals become known for napping in order to keep functioning.
Despite our obsession for sleep—after all, we can’t stop doing it!—scientists don’t have a good understanding of why we sleep. What we do know is that we definitely need it and things go badly for us if we go too long without it.
Testing the limits of sleep
Despite the known perils of going without sleep, some people have tested the limits. Randy Gardner, in 1964, decided to go without sleep for 11 days—264 hours—for a science experiment.
Pioneering sleep researcher Dr William Dement heard about the attempt and enthusiastically volunteered to ‘support’ Randy, along with a couple of Randy’s friends.
His support crew helped him stay awake by making him play basketball at 3 am, walking him around the block and, when all else failed, by standing directly in front of him and screaming, ‘Open your eyes, open your eyes, you can do it!’
After four days, Randy became delusional, thinking he was someone else and mistaking road signs for people.
He described the experiment as fun and exciting at first but, as the sleep deprivation kicked in—to use his words—it became ‘a real bummer’.
It’s important to note that it isn’t only complete sleep deprivation that causes issues. Not getting enough sleep for several nights in a row can be equally damaging.
Research restricts sleeping time
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School teamed up to compare the effects of total sleep deprivation to prolonged sleep restriction. In the study, the subjects slept for only four or six hours each night for 14 days.
Not surprisingly, those who only had four hours of sleep each night suffered greater cognitive deficits than those who had six hours of sleep a night. But after two weeks, even those who were restricted to six hour of sleep per night had reductions in their cognitive ability equivalent to not sleeping for two days.
More interesting, after only a few days of being sleep restricted, the participants seemed to lose their ability to judge how sleepy or poorly performing they actually were. It was as if they had lost their reference to what it felt like to be fully awake and functioning.
We need our sleep.
5 things you can do to sleep better
Considered the father of sleep research, Dement writes in the opening page of his book The Promise of Sleep, ‘After all the research I’ve done on sleep problems over the past four decades, my most significant finding is that ignorance is the worst sleep disorder of them all. People lack the most basic information about how to manage their sleep, leading to a huge amount of suffering’.
Here are some sleeping strategies for better health from the National Institute of Health.
1. Get the light right
Avoid bright—especially blue—light at night.
2. Be active in the morning light
Morning light and exercise are great for improving sleep. Why not combine the two, if you can, for a double bonus.
3. Stick to a sleep schedule
Go to bed and wake up at much the same time each day, if you can—even on weekends. Keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle helps our bio-clock to get a good routine of knowing when to make us feel sleepy and when to make us feel awake.
4. Avoid things that keep you up
These include such things as caffeine and exercising or eating too late in the evenings. And while a ‘nightcap’ might help you fall asleep, the alcohol keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep, so the quality of sleep is not as good.
Day-time naps have been shown to be highly beneficial, even if for only 10 minutes. But longer than 30 minutes can interfere with our sleep-wake cycle.
5. Make your sleep environment the most relaxing place on the planet
Everything in our sleeping environment should be relaxing—after all, we spend about one-third of our life there! This means a comfortable bed and a dark and quiet place. And before you get into bed take time to relax. That could be reading a book—not on a screen—listening to music or having a bath.
Sleep is so important for our health and wellbeing that we can’t afford not to make it a priority. If you struggle to get enough sleep, take measures to remedy it.
Try the strategies above and if they’re not helpful, talk with your healthcare provider.
Adapted, with permission, from Darren Morton’s Live More Happy. Darren is the lead researcher at the Lifestyle Research Centre at Avondale University College.
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