I have been struggling with getting enough quality sleep lately. I used to be a really good sleeper. I could fall asleep just about anywhere. On my flights back to China to visit family, I used to be able to sleep a solid 10 hours out of the 14 hour flight. I used to be able to sleep from the moment my head hits the pillow to the time my alarm sounded in the morning. Then things began to change as I got older, busier, and more stressed. I know that I function best when I get 9 hours or more of sleep per night but sleep was the first thing to go in college and grad school. Now good quality sleep is as rare and elusive as sunshine in the Seattle winter. I recently listened to two podcasts on the importance of sleep, which help me reflect on my quality of sleep and think of ways I can make sleep a priority again.
Dr. Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist at Oxford, talked about sleep as a basic human need in the TED Radio Hour episode titled Maslow's Human Needs. Dr. Foster reminded us that we spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping and yet most of us do not take sleep as seriously as food, water, and shelter. He emphasized that sleep is important for our restoration and metabolism because certain restorative genes are only turned on during sleep. Sleep is also important for brain processing and memory consolidation. Our creativity and problem-solving capabilities are significantly enhanced during sleep. The consequences of not getting enough sleep includes irritability, decreased alertness, compromised immune system, and increased hunger. Lack of sleep also negatively impacts memory and judgment. In addition to the consequences mentioned by Dr. Foster, sleep deprivation can also lead to increased risk for heart disease, increased risk for diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, low sex drive, poor balance, depression, and aging skin according to this article from Healthline and this article from WebMD. A 2014 study conducted by Drs. Sandhu, Seth, and Gurm showed a 24% increase in heart attacks the day after daylight savings time transitions, when we lose an hour of sleep.
Similarly, in the TED Radio Hour episode titled Simple Solutions, Dr. Wendy Troxel, clinical psychologist, adjunct professor at University of Pittsburgh, and senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation, talked about how sleep deprivation affects teens. She cited research that showed teens who get enough sleep perform better, miss school less frequently, are more likely to graduate from high school, and have better mental and physical health. However, only 1 in 10 children and teens get enough (8 to 10 hours) of sleep per night. The negative characteristics we often label teens (e.g., lazy, moody, poor decision making, accident prone) may actually be a result of chronic sleep deprivation. Dr. Troxel suggested that the solution to lack of sleep can be as simple as starting the day an hour later.
Here are several research-backed strategies to improve sleep that I will be incorporating back into my life:
1. Make my bedroom as dark as possible (e.g., getting some blackout curtains, removing electronics and lights, closing the bedroom door).
2. Get a foam mattress so my partner and I don't feel each other move around at night.
3. Shut off my screens (computer, cell phone, tablet, etc.) an hour before bed.
4. Create a regular sleep schedule and routine. Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
5. Limit my caffeine intake each day to 1 cup of coffee in the mornings.
6. Exercise regularly.
7. Prepare for my day the night before so I can have a few more minutes of sleep in the morning.
8. Train my dog to not wake me up in the morning.
Do you struggle with getting enough quality sleep? What are some ways that you have found helpful to prioritize and improve your sleep?
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