It’s 9 pm on Tuesday. You had a great day at work and an even better session at the gym. You made it home in time to cook a healthy dinner instead of picking up from the Thai place around the corner. It’s been too long since you did any pleasure reading and you’re looking forward to cracking open that new novel for a while before getting to bed early.
It’s now 12:43 am. The only light in your bedroom is the pale glow of your laptop. Your contacts are drying up because you haven’t blinked much in the last two hours. You only read four pages, but you did add thirty-odd titles to your Netflix queue and viewed every last one of your best friend’s Facebook photos in reverse chronological order.
You’re not alone.
In June 2014, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands coined the term “bedtime procrastination” in their study of why people often fail to go to sleep at their intended time despite the absence of external circumstances preventing them from doing so. 84% of the sample reported feeling that they slept too little at least once a week. 30% reported sleeping 6 hours or less on weeknights — far less than the 7 to 9 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans currently average 6.8 hours of sleep a night. 40% sleep less than 7 hours a night. In the 1940s, this number was only 11%.
The ongoing trend in 21st-century sleepiness is particularly alarming because sleep is as essential to physical and mental health as oxygen and water. During sleep, your body repairs and restores itself on the cellular level. Sleep is also critical for allowing the brain to embed the things we’ve learned and experienced throughout the day.
The Science of Sleep
It should come as no surprise, then, that excessive sleepiness is linked to slow thought processing and diminished capacity to assess information, resulting in compromised problem-solving skills, impaired judgment, and decreased productivity in the workplace. Longterm lack of sleep is known to increase one’s risk for a myriad of health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, mood disorders, weakened immune function, and risk for alcohol abuse. Poor sleep quality is also linked to longterm loss of grey matter, which makes up brain regions responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, and decision making.
If you often find yourself inexplicably awake during the wee hours, psychologist Ron Friedman suggests doing a “nighttime audit” of how you spend your time after work. Simply log everything that happens from the moment you head home until you go to bed. After a few evenings, evaluate your data: why don’t you get to sleep at your desired time? Are you out late for social plans? Taking care of unfinished tasks? Perhaps you just enjoy the personal time and the world feels calmest several hours after the sun goes down.
Once you identify your motivation for staying awake later, see if you can find some activities in your post-work routine that doesn’t further your goals, and reduce time spent on these. If you stay up late to read but record that you spend 1.5 hours per evening texting and video chatting with friends, see if you can limit that time to 45 minutes and/or set a firm deadline in your evening when you will unplug from your communication devices. You may find it helpful to set a reminder when it is time to power down for the night.
Time management isn’t always the main obstacle for the chronically under-slept. Sometimes we simply don’t feel tired even when we know we should. If you don’t struggle to get under the sheets in time for 7-9 hours of shuteye, here are some tips that may help you fall asleep.
Minimize blue light exposure:
All of our screens emit blue light. Exposure to these blue wavelengths suppresses our natural production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Studies have found that using amber tinted blue-blocking glasses can counter this effect and create a “physiological darkness” that improves sleep quality and mood.
Use bright light to your advantage:
Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight when you wake up in the morning. This will help your body maintain its circadian rhythms and balance your sleep cycle.
Avoid eating 3 hours before sleep:
Dr. Jamie Koufman notes that working adults’ eating habits are becoming increasingly worse for sleep health. Many adults don’t eat much throughout the day. They cram in one huge meal in the late evening due to long work hours and further delays caused by shopping and exercise. A healthy adult body takes several hours to empty the stomach. Going to sleep before this process completes often leads to acid reflux, indigestion, and heartburn. Prolonged reflux disease can increase one’s risk for esophageal cancer.
If you must eat before bed, try these:
A growling stomach can make it just as difficult to fall asleep as acid reflux. Rather than starve yourself, check out the National Sleep Foundation’s list of bedtime-appropriate snacks.
Regulate your caffeine intake:
Although you may only feel its effects for a short period right after you drink it, caffeine has a half-life of 5.3 to 5.7 hours. This means that nearly 6 hours after you have a cup of coffee, half of its caffeine is still present in your body. Ingesting 200mg of caffeine — the equivalent of 16oz of coffee — in the early evening is shown to reduce sleep efficiency and disrupt the natural stages of sleep. If you routinely drink coffee near the end of the day, consider switching to tea.
Exercise promotes efficient sleep:
Moderate to vigorous exercise for 150 minutes per week is shown to improve sleep quality up to 65%. Participants in this study also reported feeling less tired during the day than their less active counterparts even when they slept the same amount the night before.
Turn down the thermostat:
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 60-67 degrees for the optimal sleep temperature. Your body decreases its temperature to initiate sleep, so you will fall asleep more easily in a cooler environment.
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