AS A tot, I protested going to bed with the same hatred I now reserve for YouTube ads. I never got ready for bedtime without a fight. I had all the stalling tactics down: Sob, then demand five more minutes of TV time, then story time, then song time. My mother would beg and plead, and then, when she got desperate, she’d say, “Fine. Name your price,” and I’d request something off my wish list that I didn’t feel like waiting for till Christmas. To me, sleeping meant missing out on being awake, and to a child, being awake is always more exciting.
Adults? Not so much.
By most standards, we become adults when we land our first job, sign the lease on our first apartment or, some would say, when we start a family and have children. Personally, I believe that we first flounder into adulthood when, at the end of the day, we just can’t wait to go to bed, or when we begin to make excuses to drift off. (The most common being the one I most frequently employ: “I’m just going to rest my eyes for a second.”)
There’s a host of information out there showing that logging seven to eight hours of sleep a night is necessary for improving concentration and productivity and reducing risks of everything from heart disease to depression. “If we’re sleeping less than four or more than 12 hours on a consistent basis—you know, for weeks at a time—then there’s something wrong,” Edgar Garcia-Rill, PhD, director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, tells me over the phone. “Remaining awake is actually metabolically demanding. Your brain works really hard to keep you awake all day long. And throughout the day, you start building up sleep debt until you’re really sleepy, and then you fall asleep. If you push that waking time out, then you start seeing failure on higher function.”
Even though I’ve made a commitment to hit the hay at a reasonable time every night, there are nights when either work or an episode of some new show cuts into my sleep time. The next morning, I feel the sting of a less-than-stellar night of sleep—another marker of adulthood. (For me, it comes in the form of a headache, mood swings or a generally foggy head.) There are other nights when, no matter what I do, I find myself tossing and turning like a sailboat in a storm. And because I like to keep my irritability level on its lowest setting, I asked Garcia-Rill for his tips on catching better Z’s.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
Dr. Edgar Garcia-Rill puts our sleep anxiety to rest
Take 20-minute naps.
Naps are all about timing. Sleep too little, and you won’t reap the benefits. Snooze too long, and you’ll wake up groggy and irritable. The sweet spot, Garcia-Rill says, is somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes. Ideally, you’ll want to stay in what’s called slow-wave sleep, or non-rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, and wake up before falling into a deeper REM sleep (the one most often associated with dreaming as a result of the heightened brain activity). That way, you can spring from your siesta with a renewed sense of alertness and increased motor performance.
Don’t skimp on carbs.
“If you’re going to sleep, what you want is to have neurotransmitters that are more inhibitory than excitatory,” says Garcia-Rill. “If you’re eating a carbohydrate meal, it promotes inhibitory amino acids to go through the blood and into the brain.” Translation: He’s not saying you should polish off a pizza every night, but if you’re vulnerable to sleeping problems, introducing a healthy dose of carbs to your meal a couple of hours before bedtime might actually help you nod off faster.
Ditch your crappy mattress.
If you can’t remember when you bought your mattress, this might be a sign it needs to go. A mattress reaches the end of its life around 10 years in, and even if it isn’t showing any obvious evidence of wear and tear, it might be causing you stiffness and aches and pains. “Discomfort pressure points will wake you up in the middle of the night or will not allow you to sleep well,” says Garcia-Rill. “If you’re sleeping on too hard a mattress and you’ve got a pressure point on a hip, you’re going to have a reduced quality of sleep.”
Get the TV out of the bedroom.
“You want a pretty dark light level without sharp changes,” says Garcia-Rill. “You don’t want to leave the TV on that changes light whenever a new scene comes up so it flickers through your eyelids. Light does get through the eyelids, and you want to modulate that at night.” Not to mention, the subject matter of what you watch does factor into how you sleep. When watching a horror movie, for example, your body releases epinephrine and cortisol as a stress response. It takes these hormones awhile to clear before you can return to your normal resting state.
Don’t be alarmed.
We know—everybody has a love-hate relationship with alarms. It’s especially irritating when we’re jolted out of a wonderful dream with a loud, obnoxious sound. But for folks with heart disease, Garcia-Rill says, waking to a loud alarm can be dangerous. That’s why setting your alarm to crescendo gently goes a long way in ensuring that you peacefully wake up from your slumber. “It’s good for you, normally, to wake up gently,” he says. “So what you want is an alarm that increases in sound but certainly not much more than 80 to 85 decibels. Most of the old-style alarms are 90 to 100—way too loud.”
Keep calm and sleep on.
The relationship between stress and sleep is sort of a catch-22. Not sleeping enough affects your stress levels, and stress, consequently, prevents you from slipping into slumberland. Ever wondered why you have trouble falling asleep after, say, a heated argument with your spouse? Your body goes into that same fight-or-flight mode, releasing cortisol, which pulls glucose out of cells and into the bloodstream. In the meantime, it shuts down your digestive functions. “Stress is like premature aging,” says Dr. Garcia-Rill. “You have to deal with the stressors so that you can calm down and finally fall asleep.”
Don’t let booze wreck your snooze.
A little vino with dinner might sound like a superb end-of-day treat, but there are reasons why you should rethink a nightcap. “Alcohol, at low doses, is actually excitatory,” says Garcia-Rill. “It makes you more alert. So alcohol is not a good response to stress, even though it’s one that most people seek. You know, you have a stressful day, you get home, and time for a martini! That’s not a great thing to do because it’s only delaying the problems. Once you’re alert again, you start thinking about your problems again.”