The latest in sleep science is clear: No matter how self-motivated you may be, you need a good night’s rest to perform to your highest potential.
Nitun Verma is a Stanford-trained sleep medicine researcher and cofounder of the health blog PeerWell who took to Reddit to answer users’ questions about getting a perfect night’s sleep. We’ve taken the best tips from his writing, as well as additional information from Harvard and the National Sleep Foundation.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
Your body runs on an internal clock, which you can think of as the balance between an alerting signal and sleep drive, as shown in an interactive chart from the sleep division at the Harvard Medical School.
In a healthy schedule, one’s sleep drive decreases in the day as one’s alerting signal increases. One can stay awake with an alert mind for “as much as 16 or 17 hours straight” according to Harvard. During sleep, the sleep drive increases while the alerting signal decreases.
It’s why powering through your internal clock or catching up on sleep on the weekend puts your body through the same experience as jet lag, Verma writes on Reddit. There will be times, of course, where you have some late nights on the weekend, but the least you can do is stick to a tight schedule during the week and understand how a night on the town affects your biological rhythm.
Get 7-9 hours of sleep.
There are five stages of sleep necessary for “muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. Seven to nine hours are required for the average adult to fully go through each stage.
Verma explains on Reddit that people who barely get sleep and seem alert are deceiving themselves. He writes:
When people get a low amount of sleep (like 4-5 hours) for a long time, they think they have gotten used to it, and don’t need the usual amount. It is true, that they don’t feel as sleepy as they used to. And as far as feeling sleepiness goes, it is true. For example, if someone who normally gets 8 hours of sleep drops to 4 hours, they will feel pretty tired / miserable for a week or two. But after more time, they won’t notice sleepiness. So they start to think they have trained themselves. But, that simply has to do with how they feel (feeling sleepy). Being sleepy is different. Being sleepy means your brain isn’t working as fast as it used to.
Be careful with what you eat and drink shortly before bed.
Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine for obvious reasons, the National Sleep Foundation says. Also avoid large meals before going to sleep, since your metabolism’s processing of the food will throw off your internal clock. And while alcohol is a depressant that can make you fall asleep, the metabolizing of the alcohol can lead to disruptions of the important second half of your sleep cycle.
And if you rely on even moderate drinking or smoking of marijuana to fall asleep each night, as some of Verma’s Reddit readers said they did, you should probably consult a physician to see if you actually have a sleep disorder.
Don’t do intense exercise too soon before bed.
Similarly, you don’t want to raise your metabolism with a weight-lifting session or pickup game of basketball too late in the day. “On days of extreme activity at night, the metabolism is increased for several hours,” Verma writes. “That causes increased heat, and confuses the brain to stay awake. It increases the struggle to catch sleep. That heat is different from a blanket, or taking a warm shower.”
If you’ve got an unavoidably abnormal work schedule, make use of accessories like blackout curtains to help your circadian rhythm adjust.
If you work the night shift, you may have to force your body to adjust its internal clock. Verma recommends using blackout curtains to keep daylight from pouring into your room, as well as earplugs and a white noise machine to diminish background noise.
Have a regular pre-bedtime ritual.
“Imagine your body is like a car,” Verman writes on PeerWell. “Even if you slam on your brakes your car will take some time to stop. In the same way you cannot stop your body immediately. You need to slow down before you can come to rest.”
Verma recommends spending at least an hour away from your smartphone, laptop, or television before bed, and using deep breathing for 10 minutes to help quiet your mind and transition into sleep.
Regulate your light intake.
Your body produces the hormone melatonin to regulate your circadian rhythm, and its regulation is dependent on light intake. Your body is wired to sleep in the dark and wake with daylight, Verma says, so help it along by keeping lights dim before bed and opening the shades when you get up.
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