Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

Graphics by Susan L. Davenport

Graphics by Susan L. Davenport

My brain goes all the time. Sometimes I feel like there’s a hamster in my head, running on a wire wheel. That’s not too bad during the day, but when it’s bedtime, and the stupid hamster won’t get off his STUPID wheel, it’s bad.

After a night of hamster activity, I’m not worth squat the next day. I’m grumpy, and things that don’t normally bother me make me frustrated. My poor family tiptoes around trying not to incur the wrath of the dragon lady.

Becoming an angry dragon lady is bad enough, but there are even worse consequences from sleep loss. Not getting enough sleep affects your immune system and makes you more likely to get sick. Also, it can make you accident prone.

“Sleep deprivation was a factor in some of the biggest disasters in recent history: the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and others.

But sleep loss is also a big public safety hazard every day on the road. Drowsiness can slow reaction time as much as driving drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue is a cause in 100,000 auto crashes and 1,550 crash-related deaths a year in the U.S. The problem is greatest among people under 25 years old.” (Peri, 2014)

Sleep loss can lead to heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetics. Some of you may be saying, “I don’t have to worry about those things – those are for old people,” but sleep loss can affect young people too. It kills your sex drive.

It ages your skin, making you look older than you are. It makes you forgetful, and it can even make you gain weight. Is that what you want – wrinkles, no memory, and a fat body. Bummer.

“In the ‘Whitehall II Study,’ British researchers looked at how sleep patterns affected the mortality of more than 10,000 British civil servants over two decades. The results, published in 2007, showed that those who had cut their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night nearly doubled their risk of death from all causes. In particular, lack of sleep doubled the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.” (Peri, 2014)

Are you still thinking that you don’t have a problem, even if you don’t get 7-8 hours of sleep each night?

“Lack of sleep can affect our interpretation of events. This hurts our ability to make sound judgments because we may not assess situations accurately and act on them wisely.

Sleep-deprived people seem to be especially prone to poor judgment when it comes to assessing what lack of sleep is doing to them. In our increasingly fast-paced world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honor. But sleep specialists say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong. And if you work in a profession where it’s important to be able to judge your level of functioning, this can be a big problem.

‘Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation – they’ve gotten used to it,’ Gerhrman says. ‘But if you look at how they actually do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. So there’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are.’ ” (Peri, 2014)

So, how much sleep do you need? It depends on how old you are:

  • Older adults, 65+ years: 7-8 hours

  • Adults, 26-64 years: 7-9 hours

  • Young adults, 18-25 years: 7-9 hours

  • School-age children, 6-13 years: 9-11 hours

  • Preschool children, 3-5 years: 10-13 hours

  • Toddlers, 1-2 years: 11-14 hours

  • Infants, 4-11 months: 12-15 hours

  • Newborns, 0-3 months: 14-17 hours (Team, 2015)

If you’re like me, you’re probably saying, ‘it’s not as if I don’t want to sleep, I just can’t.’ That’s what I told my doctor yesterday when he told me I wasn’t getting enough sleep. He told me I needed to modify my sleep hygiene. Sleep Hygiene? I’d never even heard of it before.

It turns out that sleep hygiene is defined as habits and practices that enable you to sleep well on a regular basis. Here are some suggestions that may help you sleep better.

  • Increase your sleep drive by avoiding naps.

  • Restrict your sleep time to the average number of hours you have actually slept per night in the preceding week.

  • Get regular exercise each day, preferably at least 40 minutes, but finish the exercise at least 6 hours before bedtime. Exercise increases your cortisol levels (the stress hormone), which can keep you awake.

  • Keep regular bedtime 7 days a week. Our bodies like routines. If we always go to bed and get up at the same time, our body will get used to that routine and know when it is expected to sleep.

  • Do not smoke after 7 pm, or give it up.

  • Limit caffeine to no more than three cups no later than 10 AM.

  • Light to moderate use of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol can fragment sleep over the second half of your sleep period.

  • If your clock has a glowing dial, keep it turned away from you, and do not look and see what time it is when you wake up in the middle of the night.

  • Turn out lights in the room so that it is dark. Nowadays, even surge protectors have lights on them. Everything seems to glow. Turn things off or cover the lights until it is dark in the room.

  • Keep the room well ventilated, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature throughout the night.

  • Do not eat or drink heavily for 3 hours before bedtime. A light snack may help.

  • Use a bedtime ritual. Doing the same things every night before bedtime will help your body know when it is time to wind down and get sleepy.

  • Stop using electronic devices with blue light at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Eliminate stimulating activities from your bedtime ritual. I had to quit playing Sudoku before bedtime because it woke my brain (hamster) up.

  • Be sure that your mattress is not too hard or too soft, and that your pillow is the right height and firmness. My mattress is twenty years old, so now I’m researching and shopping for a new one.

  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. Find somewhere else to work or exercise, so that your body understands that when you go to the bedroom, it’s time to relax.

It’s complicated isn’t it, but I think it’s worth it, at least it is to me. I like myself much more when I get enough sleep, and I am two-three times more productive. It’s worth changing my habits and my environment if it will help me be a better person and a better writer.

Is it worth it to you? Only you can decide, but make sure lack of sleep is not impeding your decision making. Sweet dreams.