With our demanding workloads and countless distractions, sometimes you just can't help but send one last email, click the next link, or watch the next episode. You never get enough of it, and every hour we push into the night eats into the productivity of the next day. The cycle continues.
We could argue and compromise all day about the optimum number of hours of sleep we need, but the fact is, science agrees on at least 7 solid hours. I've double-checked my sources for this. Even the smallest loss in sleep can affect our mood and energy, no matter how well you think you're handling it. In the rest of this article, I hope to help you understand the biology of sleep, share a few tips on getting more of it, and hopefully wrap this up before midnight.
Sleep isn't simply when your body and brain shut down. Your brain remains active as you sleep, controlling your breathing, heart rate, and so on, as it prepares you for the next day. Sleep is broadly divided into two categories: REM (Rapid Eye Movement), during which we dream, and non-REM sleep.
Stage 1: Lasts up to 10 minutes for most people. The sleeper can still be awakened during this stage. This is the least restorative of the three stages.
Stage 2: Intermediate stage. Here, the sleeper gradually descends into deeper sleep and this usually lasts about 20 minutes.
Stage 3: Deep sleep. This is the most restorative of the three stages and is crucial. It is much harder to awaken a person during this stage. As you grow older, you tend to get less of this deep sleep.
REM Sleep: As mentioned earlier, dreaming occurs during REM sleep. It requires high brain activity because, as you dream, the brain not only needs to navigate the environment you're in but also create it. The characteristic eye movements during REM sleep actually synchronize with the movements of the eyes during the dream—meaning, if you look left in your dream, your eyes will also move to the left. [Just an interesting fact.]
The side effects of sleep deprivation go beyond just yawning and mood swings. It's not a badge of honor for workaholics. Lack of sleep can increase your risk of heart disease, affect your memory, cause depression, and do more damage to your lifestyle and health than those extra work hours could ever make up for.
Quality Over Quantity: Understand that the quality of sleep matters more than the quantity.
Stick to a Schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Your sleep-wake cycle matters, and any changes to it can affect you for several weeks before your body adjusts.
Exercise Regularly: Physical activity every day can help you fall asleep faster and experience more deep sleep.
Mind the Environment: Your circadian rhythm relies on environmental cues. Dimming your lights and avoiding bright screens at night will help you fall asleep faster.
Manage Sleep Debt: We accrue sleep debt, which is the total hours of sleep lost during a week or so. It's important to make up for this, as it can seriously disrupt your natural sleeping rhythms and may result in insomnia.
Simply understanding the importance of good sleep and following these tips can quickly improve your sleep habits. You'll find that the productivity gained from a good night's sleep can easily make up for the hours spent slouching over a laptop past midnight.