Sleep deprivation is now defined by leading experts as getting less than 7 hours of top quality, uninterrupted sleep most nights. Chronic sleep deprivation can also significantly increase your chances of developing major diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
The body's aging process itself is accelerated by sleep deprivation. This happens through the intense wear and tear poor sleep places on the tips of our chromosomes, the tiny structures inside our genes called telomers. For example, getting 5 or fewer hours of sleep can result in a heart that looks and acts 10 years older. In fact, one major recent sleep study concluded that:
"…adults under age 65 who got only five hours of sleep or less a night, for seven days a week, had a higher risk of early death than those who consistently got six or seven hours."
And it's not just your physical health that's impacted. Poor sleep can also have a detrimental impact on your next-day cognitive performance, creativity, and emotional wellbeing.
For example a study found that new doctors working a typical 34-hour shift will make almost 500% more diagnostic errors than well-slept doctors and even senior surgeons who have had less than 6 hours sleep are 170% more likely to make a serious surgical error compared to when they have had adequate sleep.
In fact, new research strongly suggests high-quality deep-sleep may represent one of the most potent non-pharmaceutical anxiety remedies currently available. And it's a 100% natural remedy that's also completely free of charge.
The natural anxiolytic effects of deep-sleep are so powerful, that building a healthy sleep habit is increasingly viewed by mental health experts as a critical part of preventing and treating anxiety disorders and clinical depression.
It turns out that a great night's sleep is a period of major physical detoxification for the brain, including the draining of TAU and other toxins associated with age-related cognitive decline.
New memories are also formed while we sleep, primarily through a process called synaptic pruning. This is your brain's way of weeding out less important day time experiences - like the passing scenery from your commute to work or mindless commercials you saw on TV. In another fascinating recent study, people were able to harness synaptic pruning to cut the time it took them to learn to speak a new language by 50%. They did this by merely learning in the hours just before bedtime and then quickly reviewing what they learned the next morning shortly after waking up.
And despite all the incredible sleep science that's been coming out over the last decade, and the stern health warnings from leading experts, – the global sleep epidemic only seems to be worsening.
Between 2010 and 2018, for example, the percentage of people sleeping less than 6 hours increased from 30% to 35%. And the picture is even bleaker when it comes to medical professionals and those serving in the military – with close to half of them getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night.
Practical Ways to Improve Your Sleep
1. Go To Bed and Wake Up at The Same Time Every Day
Establishing regular sleep and wake up times is critical because it's one of the single most powerful ways to communicate with and positively regulate your gene-expression. The goal here is to integrate and normalise your circadian rhythms, including the tiny chemical circadian clocks that exist in virtually every one of the trillions of cells in your body.
And, of course, one of the most important rhythms or pathways for enjoying a profoundly deep and restful sleep is the one that regulates the production and secretion of the powerful sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. And that brings us to the next critical sleep tip:
2. Gradually Reducing Your Light Exposure in the 2 Hours Before Bedtime
Exposure to artificial light, especially blue light from electronics, has been shown to suppress the secretion of melatonin significantly. Whereas daytime bright-light exposure – especially from sunlight in the morning – (also a powerful source of vitamin D) increases the production and secretion of melatonin. That makes getting some early to mid-morning sun exposure an excellent idea.
Think of evening exposure to artificial light as a kind of visual caffeine. It won't give you the same jolt as caffeine. Still, it will dampen even rob you of that deep, comfortable sense of tiredness – the urge to just lay down in bed and sleep - that melatonin gives you.
Using your smartphone, watching TV, or using your laptop are bad ideas, just like having a strong cup of coffee right before bed. And that brings us to the next high-value sleep-tip:
3. Limit Your Caffeine Consumption
Not only is caffeine a powerful nervous system stimulant, but it can also disrupt and delay your circadian body clock. One major study found that ingesting caffeine 6 hours before bedtime robbed participants of one hour of quality sleep time.
Much of the caffeine in a typical cup off coffee or tea will be metabolized within about 4-6 hours. But for some people with slower metabolisms due to age or medical conditions, caffeine can stay active in their systems for 24 hours or more.
To get a quality night's sleep it is a good idea to stop drinking caffeinated beverages at by 2 PM at the latest, for normal healthy adults. Others who may be more sensitive to caffeine or who have slower metabolisms, may want to limit coffee or tea consumption to the morning hours.
4. Make the Hour Before Bedtime a Stress-Free-Zone
Even before COVID-19 our hyper-connected world was experiencing a stress epidemic. Throw in the enormous health and financial toll of the the global coronavirus pandemic and it isn't surprising that many people find it difficult to switch of mentally once they go to bed.
Many people don't realise it but, one of the most common ways people spend their evenings – watching television or other electronic devices - can also generate extremely high levels of positive-stress. And that's in addition to the circadian disruption from the artificial light from watching bright screens at night in the first place.
Primetime TV programming, for example, with all it's reality TV shows, and action-packed drama, are often selected based on their ability to generate intense emotional reactions in their viewers. TV ads are also designed to maximize intense emotional reactions which means that we even though we feel like we are engaged in a recreational activity, we still experience bursts of stress chemicals like the short-acting adrenaline and longer-acting cortisol.
It's essential to give your body and your mind a break from all the days' stresses. Rather, you want to allow any remaining stress chemicals to metabolize away gently. You want to allow yourself to more directly experience the build-up of the natural "sleep-pressure" that accumulated during the day. Some of the ways you can help facilitate this process include:
5. Switch off Your TV 2 Hours Before You Plan to Fall Asleep
Again, this explicitly avoids the flood of positive and negative stress (chemicals) and unhealthy food cravings that prime time TV and primetime TV ads are expertly designed to elicit.
6. Turn Off Your Phone and TV at Least 1 Hour Before You Plan to Fall Asleep
Or at least disable calls and notifications. The one exception here might if you are using your phone for listening to deeply relaxing music or relaxation exercises but wherever possible try to ensure that you aren't receiving emails, notifications, calls or messages as you are trying to wind down for sleep.
7. Build a Regular pre-bedtime Reading Habit
Replace electronic screens with a good book. You might want to avoid suspense novels and other sources of readable overstimulation but reading a book before sleep is a great way to unwind the mind at the end of the day and to instigate the body’s natural sleep process.
8. Practice Breathing or Muscle Relaxation Exercises
Try practicing 5 minutes of slow diaphragmatic breathing followed by 10 minutes of gentle progressive muscle relaxation - ideally 15 minutes before your target sleep time. This can really help you fall asleep faster and deeper. However, if you haven't already mastered some basic deep relaxation techniques, you might want to practice them during the day so as not to stress over learning a new skill right before bedtime. And if you are new to breathing and relaxation practices, adding a few good books on the incredible health benefits of the relaxation response to your pre-bedtime reading list - would be a great idea.
9. Keep Your Sleep Sanctuary Cool
Keeping your regular night time sleep space cool may be one of the most important sleep-hygiene tips people overlook. The ideal temperature for your sleep sanctuary is approximately around 16° - 19° celsius.
10. Keep Your Sleep Sanctuary Pitch Black
It does not just light from screens and bright lightbulbs that can be sleep-disrupting. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology discovered that even very low levels of night-time light exposure from white or blue light nightlights were strongly associated with developing symptoms of depression. "Maintaining darkness in the bedroom at night may be a novel and viable option to prevent depression" -Obayashi wrote in an email to TIME' Magazine in 2018. Using blackout curtains and or a light-blocking sleep mask to block external lighting like streetlights, is highly recommended. And if you use night lights or safety lights, using a low red-light is much more sleep-friendly than white or blue light sources.
10. Earplugs are Great if Noise is a Problem
Simple and effective, sometimes there's nothing like a great set of foam earplugs to block out unwanted noise from neighbours or snoring family members that could be disrupting your natural sleep process.
11. Go to Another Room if You Don’t Fall Asleep Within 20-30 Minutes
One of the main pieces of advice that sleep experts give is that the bedroom should only be a place for sleep and other “select” activities. If you don’t fall asleep with in 30 minutes, it’s important to leave the bedroom to another room. You still want to maintain low light levels and avoid anything stressful. You might want to continue reading in a comfortable chair or laying on the sofa. You might also want to try meditating or listening to some guided breathing or relaxation exercises until you start to feel sleepy, at which point it’s time for bed.
12. Ask For Help
Lastly, if sleep issues persist and/or if you feel chronically tired even after what seems like getting at least 7 hours of sleep, it's important that you consult with a qualified medical professional to rule out a sleep-disorder and to get help overcoming any medical reasons that stand between you and a truly restful and restorative, healthy sleep habit. Avoid using sleep medications unless prescribed by a medical professional as they can interfere with natural, healthy sleep and can can be harmful to your health. Given that it is often our mental activity that can be the biggest barrier to falling asleep, you can also explore with your GP non-pharmaceutical cognitive therapies specifically designed to help with sleep such as CBTI. CBTI stands for Cognitive-behavioural Therapy for Insomnia and is an “evidence-based,” structured intervention that helps to identify and change negative thinking patterns and behaviours that may be contributing to more serious sleep problems.