How Important Is Sleep? (And Why You Should Get Better at It)

How many hours of sleep did you get last night? 6 hours? 7? Maybe 8?

Falling asleep is supposed to be easy. You lie down, your body temperature falls, and melatonin passes through your bloodstream. Before you know it you’re heart rate slows and you drift off to sleep.

That is the ideal, yet for many falling asleep is a tricky task.

Sleeping hasn’t always been so difficult. Have you ever taken a moment to think about how your great-great-great grandparents got their rest? Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past found that our ancestors previously slept in four hour intervals, commonly waking up once during the night before going to sleep for a second time.

How then has sleeping — a fundamental “skill” all humans share — changed so much? And why has it become increasingly difficult? First, it helps to understand why we even do it in the first place.

Do We Need Sleep?

No one is definitively sure why animals sleep. But, research across the board has shown that your body is very busy while you rest.

The most compelling example of your body at work has to do with your brain. While you get your shut eye your brain rids itself of harmful toxins.

While asleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically. Why? To remove waste proteins that build up around brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found.

Professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester, and author of the study published in ScienceMaiken Nedergaard says this process is, “like a dishwasher”.

Results from the study offer one of the best explanations for why animals need sleep. If the findings hold true for human beings they may help explain the connection between sleep disorders and brain diseases.

Regardless of what research literature you read you will find one common thread, sleep is overwhelmingly important.

Why Is Sleep so Difficult?

Many people proclaim that they would get more sleep if they could. College students pride themselves on “all-nighters” at the library and frequently confess to writing papers while they would rather be sleeping.

What then makes falling asleep infuriatingly challenging at times? Understanding sleep hygiene is a good place to start.

Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol all negatively impact sleep. The closer you get to bedtime, the further these things should be from you.

Exercise and regular mealtimes during the day will aid in your quest for a good nights rest. Eating too much or too late can make sleep elusive, while the opposite (eating too little) also has the effect.

Going to bed at different times every night will make sleep all the more difficult. Reducing variability in your nightly routine can help your body fall asleep easier. Rosalind Picard, the director of the Affective Computing Research Group at M.I.T.’s Media Lab and the co-director of the Advancing Wellbeing Initiative, found that sleep variability was one of the most important factors in determining how well someone slept. It is better to go to bed at a consistent time than to try to pull an all-nighter tonight and “catch up” tomorrow.

Yet, the most important aspect of sleep hygiene is exposure to light. The phone or computer screen you are reading this article from is emitting “blue light”. Blue light reaches deeper into your eye and is emitted on the short-wave spectrum. Blue light confuses your body. Don’t take my word for it, take Harvard’s.

Increasingly we are surrounded by these short-wave lights and that makes falling asleep incredibly difficult. Exposure to any light suppresses melatonin, but blue is especially damaging. When we spend time with a blue light emitting device we are essentially postponing our bodies signals to help us fall asleep.

How Much Do I Need?

Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study in the 1990’s about circadian rhythm.

The experiment called for a group of people to be immersed in darkness for 14 hours everyday for a month. It took weeks for the participants sleep schedules to regulate, but by week 4 they had settled into a very distinct pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Does that sound familiar? At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past exposed that our ancestors slept in this exact same pattern.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep everyday. Among the general public the idea persists that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours, yet research and history suggests otherwise.

Most people have adapted well to the 8 hour sleep cycle. For some though, waking up in the middle of the night is a reality. The human body has a natural preference for segmented sleep and that can be a difficult pill to swallow.

Exposure to artificial blue lights and a preference to segmented sleep are at the root of sleep maintenance insomnia. Falling asleep can be difficult, but for many staying asleep is even more challenging.

Yet, the goal is still the same — most people need 8 hours of sleep.

Natural Sleep Aids

  • Exercise. There are too many benefits of exercise to possibly list them all here. A 2010 study found that one bout of moderate exercise helped insomnia patients fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Temperature. Setting your thermostat a few degrees lower can drastically benefit your sleep. Recent research suggests that sleep may be more regulated by temperature than by light.
  • Sound. Quiet is key to a good nights rest, yet there may be something even better. Brain.fm offers AI-generated music to improve focus, relaxation & sleep. A recent research paper highlights how soothing sounds can aid your quest in a good nights rest.

How to Go to Sleep

  • Power down. 60 minutes before you want to fall asleep you need to stop looking at any blue-light screens. If you are determined to work later into the evening you should use a screen color adapter. Take a look at f.lux.
  • Have a regular sleep schedule. Your circadian rhythm is one big, natural schedule that your body follows. Find your routine and stick with it.

Final Thoughts

Sleep is key to optimal performance — everyone knows that. Yet, we still manage to find ways to trick ourselves into thinking, “one less hour of sleep is one more hour of productivity”. It isn’t.

Sleep is too important to be disregarded. Do your body a favor and get a little more shuteye, you owe it to yourself.

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Zach Shefska

Entrepreneur, developer, blogger from Washington, DC.

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