One of our most essential needs in life is good sleep. I’ve been thinking a lot about sleeping lately because I feel like I don’t get enough. I wondered if there are things I’m doing wrong and what I can improve. So this post is just as much a reminder to myself as it is to you about what sleep is for us humans and how to sleep well.
Sleeping for health
It might not be a secret that sleep is disrespected in today’s society. When you sleep you lose valuable time to do other things. Sure, a good night’s sleep takes around eight hours which is a third of our day. If it wasn’t for sleeping we could put in another day’s work.
But, sleep is so important that we can’t neglect it.
Just a few things that could happen if you prioritise work over sleep. You could
- have problems with your memory,
- be more irritable,
- be less able to focus, and
- be less able to process what you have learned during the day.
And these are just the short-term effects of a bad night’s sleep. In the long run, you could be getting issues such as decreased immunity, skin conditions, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, and heart disease.
The reason why we need sleep is unclear. There are a couple of theories, from energy conservation to restoration and even Brain Plasticity or ‘brain growth’. Whatever the theory or necessity for sleep, we’re not alone. Every animal sleeps, in one form or another. And every animal needs sleep, including us.
Now, I don’t want to use too many scare tactics and focus on what happens when we don’t get enough sleep. I want to rather look at how to get good sleep.
How to sleep
The obvious answer is to go to bed early. But there is more to better sleep than just that.
As a rule of thumb, an adult needs between seven and eight hours of sleep per day. Culturally there are differences in the amount of sleep needed (or the time allocated to it) and how to sleep.
Sleeping locations, as well as sleeping partners, determine a person’s sleep. And there is no right or wrong with any of these. Just for example, when my kids were babies we co-slept. If you’ve ever travelled to Japan you would have seen people sleeping in public. Our ancestors and some nomadic societies still have biphasic or polyphasic sleep periods where sleep is broken into chunks. Spaniards go to bed late to accommodate a late dinner and Middle Europeans and Australians wake early. Some societies accommodate a nap during the day and even sleeping on the job.
How to sleep well
In order to sleep well though some conditions are common to all humans: light sensitivity. Our internal clocks are ‘programmed’ to sleep in the dark and wake in the light. Sleeping during the day leads to less restful sleep and can even interrupt our hormones. Therefore, reducing light, natural and artificial, will enhance sleep quality. In times of electronic devices that also means: screens off.
Next comes the sleeping location. Here, again are vast cultural differences. Some people sleep comfortably in hammocks, others sleep on tatami mats on the floor, while still others prefer a mattress. Don’t be fooled by advertising that we all need a good mattress to allow ourselves to sleep well. That’s not necessarily true. The key is that you need to feel rested after a night’s sleep. Where you lie to do this is personal.
Similar to the sleeping location is ambient temperature and sounds. Again, it’s personal where you sleep best. Listening to the ocean can be soothing for some and disturbing for others. Some people sleep well in cooler temperatures than others. High temperatures, however, seem to generally interrupt sleep.
Also important for the sleeping location is clutter, or better the lack thereof. Clutter can lead to anxiety and stress and in the bedroom, it can lead to unrestful nights. Just remember that your bedroom should be a sanctuary for your mind.
How to get to sleep well
Just as important as thinking about the sleeping location are the activities during the day which contribute to (or restrict) good sleep.
Spend time outside in the sun during the day to allow your body to know it’s daytime. Open blinds and windows and if necessary use a light therapy box in those dull winter days.
Exercising is important for a good sleep because it relieves muscle tensions.
The last meal before bedtime should be around one to three hours before bedtime so your body has time to digest.
Try to limit stress before bedtime and establish a bedtime routine. It’s important to calm down before bed so that our minds can ‘slow down’. You can try things like reading, meditation, or a warm bath.
Limit screen time before bed.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bedtime. Especially alcohol can interrupt the sleep cycle.
And above all, listen to your body when it’s time to rest and sleep.
Now, the only thing left to say is: Sleep well!