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We all know the feeling. You’re tossing and turning, checking the clock, waking up tired and yawning through the day. Everyone craves a good night’s sleep, but a lot of us are unknowingly doing things that get in the way.

Sleep specialist, Colleen Carney, wants to help guide us down the path to a blissful slumber.

DO WE REALLY NEED EIGHT HOURS?

It’s actually a myth that people need eight hours of sleep. If each person reading this was prescribed eight hours, some would be sleep-deprived and others would be insomniacs (because that’s what happens when you get too much sleep). For all adults generally, we can say that it’s healthy to sleep between six to nine hours, but you have to discover what’s best for you within that time frame.

FUNCTIONING ON LESS SLEEP

It’s true that some people can function better on less sleep, but to put it bluntly – they will die early. Think of all of the hours of productivity they’re putting out and think of the years you’re shaving off of your life. If Barack Obama is a seven-hour sleeper and he’s functioning on six hours a night (which is still normal if we’re speaking in general terms), he’s still running on a sleep debt, and that will catch up to him. Although he might find ways to function, we would expect that he would also probably have periods of drifting off (not normal for adults) and eventually move to cognitive and behavioural accidents. This is just a poor short-term strategy overall.

BANKING ZZZ’s

We’re probably all guilty of this. We have a few days or a busy week where we skimp on sleep, and then we try to make up for it with lavish sleep-ins on the weekend. But is this an effective strategy? In this way it’s really counterintuitive: people think that if they had a bad night of sleep, they should conserve energy, take a nap, sleep in extra late, etc. but this sends the opposite and wrong message to our body to not recover during our sleep time. The recovery that recurs during deep sleep is based on our activity levels during the day. So increased time in bed means less activity/more time at rest, which results in a lower drive for deep sleep. It gets worse: with each hour that you sleep-in on the weekend, it is the equivalent of travelling one time zone. This makes your body clock shifted and in poor condition by Monday morning (making it harder to fall asleep at the desired (earlier) time on Sunday, and harder to wake-up Monday morning, since your body thinks its on Vancouver time when you are actually in Toronto).

We need to remember that it’s possible to oversleep, just as it’s possible to overeat. We don’t want to overfeed the system, just like with eating.

TAKING NAPS

Naps are always negative for sleep. If you’re a good sleeper, you won’t necessarily notice the loss of quality in your sleep, so you might not care. But if you’re a poor sleeper, making your sleep worse voluntarily is a very bad idea.

Adults shouldn’t need a nap. Are they delightful? Definitely. But if you need it, that’s a bad sign. The only reason you should ever nap, (because the during day you are building up for that deep sleep), is if you need to do something after the nap that requires energy.

If you do have a nap, it should be as early in the day as possible, and you want to keep it brief (i.e. under an hour).

RELATED: Sleeping without a blanket isn’t as easy as it sounds

ALCOHOL HABITS

Alcohol decreases the amount of REM sleep we have, and REM is responsible for memory consolidation. What we learn in the day depends on how much REM sleep we get at night. Alcohol (and cannabis) are relaxants, and while they may help you fall asleep faster (short-lived benefit), they will make sleep less deep and therefore less restorative. One or two drinks can be OK, but beyond that – it becomes an REM-suppressant. Alcohol turns to sugar over the course of the night and interrupts our sleep.

The net result of this habit is that you will have more of that light sleep, prone to weird or bad dreams, nightmares, sweating, wake-ups. Some people do drink large amounts and pass out, and then mistake that sleep for deep sleep. But in reality, over the course of that night, you’re having light and fit-full sleeps.

TAKING MELATONIN

Unfortunately, there’s a very big misunderstanding of melatonin. To give you a quick idea: melatonin is a hormone. We don’t have melatonin problems, so we don’t need extra amounts of it, since it’s regularly produced in our bodies. Melatonin provides a signal that happens several hours later so that we can sleep. This reliably and naturally happens. Some people think of melatonin as a sleep aid. It absolutely is not. It just operates as part of our clock system.

Most people take melatonin before bed, which makes absolutely no sense. If you take melatonin when it’s already present in your brain, nothing happens. The best case scenario is that it’s a placebo, which could theoretically work for some people for a period of time.

TEEN SLEEPING HABITS

Sleep is really difficult for teenagers. There’s lots of pressure put on them forcing them to go to bed early at a time when they can’t go to bed biologically. Puberty does shift them to want to sleep at a later time. Teens experience a peak of alertness in the late afternoon and early evening. This is when they should be doing projects, and this is why they stay up. It is biologically-related. So to criticize your teen or the night owl in your life and say “why didn’t you do this earlier?” or “why don’t you go to sleep earlier” is ludicrous. Adults usually experience this same feeling of alertness in the morning, which is when a lot of people get stuff done. This is not the case for teenagers or night owls.

This has been proven scientifically to the point that many school board districts are shifting start times of classes to later. They have found that this results in less absenteeism, less mental health issues, and better sleep overall. We should really be putting more pressure on our school boards to make those same moves.

WAKING UP TIRED

Have you ever woken up at 1 am and felt like you slept the whole night? That’s because you just got out of the REM sleep stage. If we’re going to determine good sleep based on how we feel when we wake up, that’s a problem. If you fall asleep involuntarily, even for a few seconds at any point in day, you are absolutely getting a bad night’s sleep. You’re either getting fragmented sleep or experiencing pain during sleep OR you aren’t leaving enough time to be in bed. You may be following the myth of eight hours when you’re a nine-hour sleeper.

EQUATION FOR SLEEP EFFECTIVENESS

Calculate how much sleep you got and how much time you were in bed and divide the two, and this gives you an index of how effective your sleep is. If it’s at 85 per cent, that is sufficient. But if less than 85 per cent, you probably are spending too much time in bed and you should decrease that number so that the other number will go up.

TIPS

The way to healthy sleep is to follow the advice that parents use with their kids:

  • Have a regular schedule
  • Have a regular wind down
  • Spend time being physically active
  • Spend time outside getting sunlight exposure

These are the things that are helpful for sleep. We know to do that for our kids, but we assume that as we age, we outgrow these needs. The truth is that we don’t outgrow them, because we’re clocks. If you want to have healthy habits, have a plan that you stick to. Regularity is the best possible thing you can introduce into your routine.

RELATED: Why letting your dog sleep in your bed might be a bad idea