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The notion of ‘sleep hygiene’ has taken its rightful place in our vernacular in recent years. Unfortunately, frequent conversations on shut-eye have done little to mitigate our collective inability to sleep well. Today, a health website or wellness magazine without a how-to article on better sleep is harder to chance upon than a good night’s rest. Conversations on sleep remain prevalent, though the prevailing focus tilts toward explication rather than action; a gulf remains between our understanding of sleep and our ability to act it out.
In recent years, scientists and researchers have taken strides to build a framework for us to understand what sleep is and why we cannot get by without it. The science is thoroughgoing and itemized: sleep can be broken down into constituent stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM, which can be measured for depth and length. Weighing in brain activity and physiological rejuvenation marks the next piece of the calculus; then medication, interventions, and prognoses come into play.
Frankly, for you and I, learning the X’s and O’s and fancy nomenclature is as relevant to improved sleep as memorizing elephant anatomy is to better enjoying a trip to the zoo. The science provides names for particulars that we did not know existed, but has little impact on the experience itself (on sleep or the zoo). For health matters, action and implementation must take precedence over scientific bits and bobs.
The importance of sleep can be measured by examining what happens when we are deprived of it. A string of late nights or early mornings (or more commonly for university students: both) sets us up for grogginess, grumpiness, lethargy, and poor cognitive functionality. For a typical university student with their never-ending juggle of homework, exams, work and societies, intellectual faculties are as vital as they are easily lost. Without adequate rest, alertness and competence quickly depart.
When students—or teachers, for that matter—celebrate with late-night drinks before morning classes, they may think it wise to limit their drinking. But the misstep here is not in drinks but in staying out late: staying awake just three hours later than usual can have the same impact as travelling to a different time zone, resulting in ‘social jetlag’. Social jetlag is as culpable for your heavy eyelids and haggard comportment as alcohol. Pretending to ‘take it easy’ by limiting yourself to one drink while nevertheless skimping on sleep does little to prevent torpor the following day. In an effort to remedy a late night, many opt to sleep in, but this only accentuates the effects of social jetlag and is no boon against a woolly-headed morning.
Improved sleep begins with waking up at the same time every single day. Restful nights fall into place after a consistent wake-up hour is established. Trying to go to bed early will provide only discontent—attempting to get shut-eye before you are tired does not work. Waking at the same hour each day helps you feel tired earlier each evening, preparing you to sleep earlier with more regularity.
Our digital appendages—smartphones, laptops, tablets—are the biggest adversaries against sleep quality. At no point did anyone decide that the last thing we should see every night before closing our eyes should be a bright light in a dark room; yet, this is the rule we abide by. Social media and accompanying haptics are designed to keep us artificially stimulated, and the light emitted from the screen triggers melatonin suppression. This tricks our brain into thinking it is daytime, not night. As a result we feel less tired and stay up later.
To sleep better today, keep your phone outside of your bedroom. Treat your bed as a sacred place reserved for sleep exclusively—keep streaming services, scrolling through social media and emails out of your sleep sanctuary (warning: you may find yourself falling asleep faster, waking up easier, and using social media less at night).
We spend upwards of one-third of our lives asleep and still we are routinely tempted to hit snooze. As if we have resigned to sleepiness as a part of waking life, the dark circles under our eyes have become mainstays like the social jetlag that denotes our weekends and the devices in our hands each night. Sleeping better starts not with science but everyday habits—daily deposits for a long-term investment.
Take care of your habits and they will take care of you. Wake up (at the same time as yesterday and tomorrow) and smell the roses.