As I write this article, I feel tired. It’s not even noon and I’ve already consumed two cups of strong coffee, neither of which have helped much. I know I’m not alone. According to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 35% of Americans describe their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair.”
Certified sleep consultant and founder of Sleep Smartzzz, Dr. Jamie Cassoff (PhD), is glad sleep is finally getting the attention it deserves because there are a litany of health risks associated with not getting enough Z’s. We all know people do crazy things when they’re in love, or drunk (or both!), but imagine how many regrettable texts are sent due to insufficient sleep. Jokes aside, consequences of sleep deprivation include depression, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Cassoff. Meanwhile, lack of sleep causes a reported 100,000 traffic accidents and 76,000 injuries each year in the US.
Getting a good night’s sleep is synonymous with overall health, so instead of treating tiredness with caffeine (ahem, Lorelai Gilmore), our focus should be on improving our sleep. For advice, we turned to Dr. Cassoff, as well as Dr. Terry Smith, a pulmonologist and US board certified sleep specialist.
So, how do I figure out my sleep needs?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends young adults (18-25) and adults (26-64) get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. These numbers indicate the normal range, but each individual needs a different amount of sleep, explains Dr. Smith. Some people only require 6 hours, while others need ten in order to feel rested. What it boils down to says Dr. Cassoff, is figuring out the exact amount of hours you need in order to feel alert and awake first thing in the morning and throughout the day.
A vacation, for instance, is a great time to try going to bed at the exact same time every night and waking up without an alarm for approximately one week to determine your ideal amount of sleep. Dr. Smith says your body naturally knows how much sleep it needs, just like it knows when you’re hungry or thirsty. Although it’s not always realistic, you shouldn’t have to rely on an alarm clock to wake up.
In addition to ensuring you’re getting the correct amount of sleep, it’s equally as important to get a good quality sleep, according to Dr. Cassoff. So while you may be getting nine hours of sleep, if you’re waking up during the night, you may still feel tired in the morning because your body hasn’t gone through all the required sleep cycles. Similarly, if you’re sound asleep but only for five hours, you’re also missing out on the full benefits of sleep.
Why do some people need more sleep than others?
Specialists initially thought environmental factors like increased light in the bedroom or caffeine determined why some people need more sleep than others to function properly, but Dr. Cassoff says there’s scientific proof humans are biologically programed to need different amounts of sleep. Thanks, mom and dad.
What’s more, we all have a natural chronotype, or body clock that determines when we’re more comfortable sleeping and being awake (chronobiology is the study of our internal clocks). There are four natural chronotypes: night owls, larks (i.e., morning people), and two groups with schedules in between. Consequently, when your schedule isn’t on par with your chronotype, you increase your probability of feeling tired and out of sorts. You can’t imagine how relieved I am to learn that I can finally attribute my morning irritability to genetics as opposed to plain ol’ crankiness.
The importance of sleep hygiene
Okay, so you’ve determined the optimal quantity of sleep you need to feel your best and you’ve learned the importance of sleep quality, now what? Sleep hygiene, says Dr. Cassoff, refers to all the things you can do to help ensure your sleep duration and quality remain consistent. If, however, you suffer from chronic insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy or any other sleep disorder, Dr. Smith recommends seeing a doctor.
Both specialists stress the importance of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (this includes weekends), because it gets your body used to a rhythm which makes it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Dr. Cassoff also suggests having a consistent pre-bedtime routine because the repetition trains the body to go into sleep mode.
Another tip is to avoid caffeinated beverages in the late afternoon as well as alcohol before bed. Sure, that glass of Pinot may help knock you out faster, but Dr. Cassoff says alcohol disrupts your quality of sleep. It’s also best to sit out on that late-night workout because your body will be over-stimulated by the activity, making it harder to fall asleep.
And not to sound like your nagging mother, but screen time (phones, computers and TV) an hour or two before bed is another major faux pas. Not only might your Facebook convo with your BFF keep you from nodding off, but the light emitted from these devices sends a signal to your brain telling it it’s daytime and you should be awake. Further, Dr. Smith and Dr. Cassoff say your body should associate your bed with sleep and sex only – not watching TV or shopping online. On the bright side, you now have a doctor’s’ approval to invest in a comfier couch.