Sleep is an important facet of health, both physical and mental. It is often taken for granted and those that are sleep deprived sometimes do not know to link their declining performance with their lack of sleep. Rest is needed in order to maximise efficiency, and sleep plays the most important role thereof.
Lack of sleep results in a myriad of issues, both short-term and long-term. Short-term consequences are mostly cognitive, affecting mental tasks. Main functions of the brain affected are memory, decision-making, attention and emotional control. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to lose track of conversations or to forget to raise something in meetings. Their ability to make sound judgements are also impaired, making poorer decisions than if they were well-slept.
Long-term effects of sleep-deprivation can lead to ill health; increasing blood pressure, impairing appetite regulation, and increasing susceptibility to infection. Furthermore, the brain’s ability to function continues to degrade. Sleep-deprived individuals tend to be more irritable and stressed, and their peers tend to see them as being less charismatic. This can make social interactions much harder.
How can we fix sleep-deprivation?
If you are experiencing a lack of sleep on a regular basis, your sleeping habits need to be addressed. Once your body has bad sleeping habits, they need to be actively addressed. They are unlikely to just disappear.
But good sleeping habits aren’t just about getting more sleep. Three factors influence how much your sleep benefits you:
- Quantity: It takes time for your body to reap the benefits of sleep. Generally, 6-8 hours of sleep is recommended for an adult.
- Quality: While a full-night’s sleep is important, your brain is still working. In order for your brain to rest, it’s best that it isn’t distracted by things like pain or stress.
- Regularity: Your body has an internal sleep clock called the circadian rhythm. It dictates when during the day you feel tired and when you’re awake. It can be bent at times, but regular sleep at regular times will keep this rhythm running smoothly.
Consistency. Humans are creatures of habit and this is dictated by our brain. It likes consistency and regularity. Going to sleep at different times each day signals that something is wrong. Your brain expects to be active at a certain time and forcing it to think then makes it tire quicker. It also sets aside times to rest based on your circadian rhythm. Much like how our daily lives are more effective with schedules, so are our sleep.
Social jet lag. Coined in 2006 by researchers who call themselves chronobiologists, social jet lag is the discrepancy between our biological clocks and our social clocks. Our body expects to sleep and wake up at specific times, but due to daily life, we often extend the boundaries of our wakefulness and sleep. Staying up late at night to organise affairs takes a toll on us and adds a task that the brain has to keep track of while it sleeps.
Lights. The issue of social jet lag is exacerbated by light. Our circadian rhythm is influenced by light. This is why electronics come with a blue-light filter, but this is only a compromise. In order to have better sleep, reduce the amount of light that you’re exposed to.
Distractions. Besides being a source of light, our phones and laptops are a constant source of distractions that keep our brains active. Having access to emails and social media at our fingertips while we lie in bed tempts us to check them. This makes them terribly good at disrupting our sleep quality. Unplug before going to sleep.
Food and drink. Food provides something that your body has to work on while you sleep – digestion. While heavy meals make you sleepy, they are not good for quality sleep. Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before you sleep. Late night projects with a cup of coffee are a duo that severely disrupts our circadian rhythms.
Beds. Condition your brain to associate the bed with sleep. Commonly, we do other things in the bed such as scrolling the internet or watching movies. This prevents our brain from associating the bed with sleep. Only go to bed when you are going to sleep. Everything else should be done out of the bed. Eventually, your head hitting the pillow immediately tells your brain to shut off.
Consider your chronotype
Even if you aren’t familiar with the word, you might be familiar with the concept of owls and larks, or wolves and bears. Your chronotype is basically what circadian rhythm you have. Are you more productive at night or during the day? Are you very active during the morning, but sleep early at night? This is your chronotype.
Your chronotype influences more than just when you are awake or asleep. It also affects at what time of the day you are more mentally active, and at which point you are more physically active. Understanding your chronotype is an easy route to organising your day.
Find which parts of your day you are most productive and make it a habit to schedule your working period thus. Place important tasks in this period.
Understanding your chronotype can then allow you to have more effective sleeping habits. See, your circadian rhythm isn’t set in stone. It can be trained. To do that, small changes to your sleeping habits need to be made before drastic changes can happen. Think about what times you naturally fall asleep and wake up. If you need to wake up for work earlier than you naturally wake up, set an alarm for 30 minutes before you naturally wake up and then slowly set it earlier and earlier until you get to your goal. Eventually, you’ll be able to wake up without the alarm.