How to Get Seven and a Half Hours of Sleep Every Night (and avoid dementia later in life)
Burning the midnight oil now can really mess things up later
We all need sleep, at least seven hours every night. You may claim to only need five or six but the reality is that not getting enough sleep has real long term effects on your health, your career, your creativity, and virtually every other aspect of life. Early onset of Dementia or Alzheimer’s has been proven to be related to sleep deprivation, as have many other chronic diseases. You need sleep. But, how do you get it?
Sleep is about one third of our lives but we rarely do anything about improving its quality
After a friend recommended it, I went to the library to find a book called Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD. I got the title wrong and ended up with another book simply called Sleep by Nick Littlehales. Why We Sleep is written by a neuroscientist based on an exhaustive review of sleep research. It is a fascinating read. Sleep was written by a sleep coach who works with professional soccer teams who struggle to get enough rest when they are on the road, playing night after night. It is a pragmatic guide to the mechanics of getting as much sleep as possible in grueling conditions. In this article I’m going get right into the things you can do right now to improve your sleep quality, duration, and by doing so, really improve the quality of your day to day life. It works and it has helped me with a drinking issue, physical fitness, and given me the energy to pursue my passions, specifically writing.
Environment: A room dedicated to nothing but sleep
This was the single biggest change I made, that really helped. When Littlehale goes on the road with his football players, he actually brings blackout curtains and other paraphernalia to set up their rooms for optimal sleep conditions. Both authors suggest that the bedroom should only be a space for sleeping. No TVs, phones or other screens. Window coverings that block light. Light triggers our waking processes and the blue light from screens is a stimulant. I moved my bedroom to a small room from a larger one that also contained my office with its tempting dual monitor workstation. The small room can be darkened and when I’m in it I’m there to sleep.
Stimulants and sedatives: How they keep your sleep from being restful
When you are sedated, which is what sleeping pills do, you are not getting the same sleep that you get with natural sleep. It is not restful and you do not get the full restorative rest that you need to function. Alcohol is also a sedative, so while it may help you conk out, you’ll have a fitful rest and are likely to wake up in the middle of the night without going through a natural sleep cycle (more below on sleep cycles).
As mentioned above, screens are the enemy of sleep. They are stimulants. To get your seven to eight hours of sleep, you should turn off all devices at least an hour before going to bed. Yes, this means no TV before getting your ZZZs. I generally get in bed with a book for a few minutes and then turn the lights off. I’ve trained my body that this is a signal to begin the sleep cycle.
Should you work out before bedtime? Workouts are also a stimulant, but they are a positive one in that they tire you physically. So, if you are like me and prefer a workout after your workday, get it in early, at least a few hours before bedtime.
Coffee, my favorite stimulant, has an average half life of twelve hours, so that afternoon cup is still in your system in the middle of the night. Different people have different responses to caffeine, so you’ll have a gauge when to have your last cup. I drink espresso, which is actually lower in caffeine than lighter roast coffee. The nice thing about drinking coffee European-style is you consume far less. Even a double shot is much less volume than the average American 12 ounce cup. I can have a second one after lunch without it keeping me up. Skip soda completely (it is killing a lot of people) and check other drinks for caffeine- manufacturers know it is addictive and regularly add it to their products to increase consumption. If you want to have something sweet, have it at the beginning of the day, not after dinner. And avoid eating right before bed.
The sleep cycle
There is a pattern to healthy sleep. We sleep in repeating cycles that last around two and a half hours. Each has stages that end in REM (rapid eye movement), a stage where we dream. REM sleep is critical to brain health and the lack of it (which sleeping meds can mess with) can lead to physical and mental health issues, including the onset of dementia later in life.
The two and a half hour cycle is why I aim for seven and a half hours of sleep or three complete cycles. When you start tracking your sleep behavior, you’ll start to see these cycles, especially if you get interrupted in the middle of one by a bathroom break or an alarm. It is much easier to wake up when you’ve completed a cycle.
If you wake up in the night and can’t sleep after trying for 15–20 minutes, get up, go into another room and do a little reading (book not device) under a dim reading lamp until you feel tired.
These suggestions are most effective when they become habitual
Habits are created by repeating actions in the same timeframe on a daily basis until they become ‘normal’. Sleep is a habit we are born with but in today’s overstimulated environment, we have broken these natural cycles. You can rebuild them by consciously starting to build in small habits that program you mind and body to enter a sleep cycle. The benefits are immediate.