Nearly all of us have had the experience of waking up and feeling as though the restorative, rejuvenating effects of a good night's sleep had passed us by. I've had countless nights where sleep was either outright elusive or would come in fits and starts. As a result of producing this story I'm now more cognizant than ever that sleep is essential for our physical and mental well-being, that when we short-change this much-abused resource, there are repercussions broad and far-reaching, from weight gain to heart disease and depression. As the scientists in our QUEST sleep story stated, how much each of us needs to sleep varies, based in part on our genetic makeup. Nonetheless, there are steps each of us can take to ensure that a good night's sleep is as close at hand as a pillow, hopefully night after night.
According to Dr. Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University, "many people are sleep deprived. In fact, there is a very simple way to know if you are sleep deprived, is if you feel awake all day long. If you don’t feel awake all day long, you probably don't get enough sleep, or if you have a sleep problem. Or if you use an alarm clock. That means that by definition, you’re not sleeping the extra half an hour that you need in the morning to really get your sleep debt completely abolished." Personally, I can't imagine waking up without an alarm clock during the work week. So I probably could benefit from another half-hour of sleep, at least.
If you're also having trouble with your sleep, another thing to keep in mind is sleep regularity. According to Dr. Mignot, it's important "to go to bed roughly at the same time and to wake up at the same time. And getting the amount you need...the key is to assess how much sleep you really need to be fully rested, and then get that sleep in one period during the night at regular hours." Dr. Mignot also told me that some people who nap during the day will arrive at his clinic complaining of not being able to go to sleep at night. That's because napping abolishes some of the body's "sleep homeostasis" which basically states that the pressure to sleep increases the more we've been awake and that sleeping reduces this pressure. So by napping, you've eliminated some of this pressure which won't build up again until many hours later, initiating feelings of sleepiness.
Then, there is the issue of caffeine. I don't know too many people who can do without caffeine to stay alert during the day. Nonetheless, if we take caffeine in the afternoon, our sleep is likely to suffer. During my interview with Dr. Mignot, I was surprised to learn that alcohol can impair one's sleep as well, since alcohol is a depressant and should presumably make one sleepy. Dr. Mignot said, "you have to avoid taking alcohol in the evening too late, because often it will produce sleep apnea, or a very dense sleep. And then you would wake up after a couple of hours unable to sleep, go back to sleep." Another factor that affects sleep for people in high, northern latitudes is the lack of daylight. As you may recall from the QUEST sleep story, a circadian rhythm entrains our bodies to wake up and go to sleep, with daylight acting as the cue to set the master clock in the brain. So it's important to have plenty of external light so that your circadian clock isn't thrown off, as it may be if you're in Alaska or a similar region where daylight is a precious resource during the long winter months. Finally, I was surprised to discover that even the ambient temperature of one's bedroom can facilitate or hinder the ability to fall asleep. This is because at night the body's temperature dips slightly, initiating sleep onset. So if your bedroom is warmer than 70 degrees, and you're having trouble falling asleep, try setting the thermostat to 68 or maybe even a degree or two cooler.
The aforementioned are simple tips which may be of little help if you suffer from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. So it's important to seek the help of a physician who may recommend undergoing a sleep test to diagnose the source of your sleep difficulties. Here's wishing you sweet dreams.