Whatever the medical and biological processes that sleep involves, it's clear to anyone that if you miss out on sleep you have difficulty functioning at your peak, and if insufficient sleep becomes a part of daily life then fatigue, sluggishness, and lethargy will become constant companions. But why does seemingly sufficient sleep often fail to refresh?
Modern Sleep Patterns
It's conventional wisdom to suggest that around eight hours of sleep is the ideal for most people. However, everyone differs, and some will get by perfectly well on as little as five hours a night while others may feel unrefreshed without ten. What's a little less well known is that our habit of sleeping in one continuous block through the night is a thoroughly modern invention.
Until the advent of electric lighting, people followed the natural cycles of light and dark much more closely, sleeping less in the short nights of summer, and more in the dark and cold of winter. It was, furthermore, common practice to break the longer autumn and winter sleeps into two parts: after dusk, most people would retire for a short period of around four hours, before waking in the small hours to eat, play games, or otherwise pass an hour or two as they saw fit. They would then sleep again until awakening naturally at dawn.
Electric lighting meant that it became more convenient to stay up later, and rise before dawn, resulting in a single block of sleep rather than two shorter ones becoming the norm. Crucially, though, it appears that this single rest period tends not to contain as much refreshing deep sleep as the combined total of that provided by humanity's original habits, developed over millennia of evolution. It's no surprise, then, that many people find that they're not fully refreshed after a fitful eight hours, rudely interrupted by an alarm clock.
Is There a Solution?
It's probably unrealistic to expect society to revert to the seemingly natural patterns of segmented sleep, and busy lives often preclude spending longer in bed, but that doesn't mean you have to put up with constant fatigue. The key to more refreshing sleep lies just as much in quality as in quantity, and the following simple tips can help you to sleep better and wake feeling more revitalized.
- Avoid coffee within three hours of going to bed, along with other caffeinated drinks like tea and some sodas.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol, as although it can make you fall asleep faster, as you metabolize it it starts to act as a stimulant, resulting in disturbed sleep later in the night.
- Try to establish a regular sleep routine, retiring and getting up at the same times each day where possible.
- Don't make your bedroom too dark. Allowing the dawn light to wake you will help to regulate and reinforce your body's natural sleep cycles.
- Avoid electronic displays including smartphones and TV for an hour or so before trying to sleep, as the light they give off disrupts your body's melatonin levels, making falling asleep more difficult.
- Don't fight insomnia. If you can't sleep, get up and leave your bedroom for 20 minutes or so. Distract your mind and relieve frustration by reading a book, for example, before trying again.
- Exercise early in the day. Physical activity will make you tired and promote healthy sleep, but it also raises cortisol and adrenaline levels, which can keep you awake. Aim to exercise in the mornings or early afternoon, and certainly no less than three hours before trying to sleep.
In a society that sometimes seems obsessed with health and clean living, the value of sleep is often overlooked. However, slightly adapting your routine to promote a better night's sleep could leave you feeling healthier, more energetic, and happier than such small changes might lead you to expect.