By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer
In continuing this week on the topic of sleep, it is my hope that my previous article has properly established the universal importance of sleep. It may be more difficult, however, to explore how to actually take steps to retake the time necessary to rest our bodies and minds. After all, understanding the “why” doesn’t always lead to action: I know why I shouldn’t drink soda or eat too much fast food, and yet I still engage in both activities. I intend to write here a few thoughts on how we can change our routines and, ultimately, mindset in order to lead to more meaningful hours of sleep.
Just as we have typical morning rituals (exercise, shower, eat breakfast, brush teeth), the quality of our sleep is predicated on the types of routines we establish in our evenings. If we set our alarm for the same time every morning, then we should likewise have a set time every night at which we go to bed. Especially relevant in this digital age, we have to eliminate screen usage far earlier in the night than what we likely are doing now. Whether that’s watching Netflix or typing up one last email, interacting with LED-powered screens reduces the output of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Dr. Matthew Walker, in Why We Sleep, comments on a study that concluded that reading on an iPad, compared with reading a physical book, reduces melatonin release by over 50 percent at night. In general, we should keep our home lighting dimmed as much as possible as the evening progresses, and avoid other stimulants such as caffeine. Exercise and physical activity are extremely helpful in preparing our bodies to fall asleep easier, but should be avoided in the two hours immediately before one’s chosen bedtime. And for those who have racing thoughts, keeping a bedside journal to write down persistent ideas should allow sleep to come more easily. Forming consistent routines is a key component of good “sleep hygiene.”
Regardless of our attempts to regulate our evening routines and allow our bodies to prepare for sleep, our efforts may be stymied if the atmosphere of our bedroom is less than ideal. Rachel Salas, a sleep expert at Johns Hopkins, studies the ways to optimize bedrooms for better quality sleep. Among her suggestions, the following stand out:
- Keep your room clean and minimize clutter
- Remove TVs, computers and other electronics
- Use room-darkening blinds to block external light
- Keep pets in a separate room, or at least not on your bed
- Turn down the thermostat and the keep the room cool
- Make your bed every morning
The general idea behind these suggestions is creating a comfortable space free from distractions where our bodies can focus solely on sleep. I can attest to the benefits specifically of removing electronic distractions. While writing my undergraduate thesis, I made the conscious decision to take my computer out of my bedroom and only do research and writing in a separate area in my house. In doing so, I improved my sleep hygiene and trained my brain to expect sleep whenever I finished working and retired to my bedroom. In constrained living arrangements, this may not be practical. But each individual can examine his or her situation and make adjustments over time and determine whether sleep becomes easier.
Sleep hygiene strategies aside, fitting in the proper allotment of sleep comes down to being a time management issue. Many people make to-do lists not only to have a visual reminder of the tasks ahead of them, but also to organize the level of importance of those same tasks. But when short on time, sleep will simply not top the list of daily priorities. The first step in reclaiming time to sleep, then, is conditioning our minds to recognize sleep as a nonnegotiable necessity. As students, this means we have to study smarter and avoid last-minute “cramming.” We also have to know when we have overextended ourselves with part-time jobs and extracurriculars and force ourselves to step back and focus on fewer activities (difficult for all of you overachievers, I know). For working professionals, I recognize that supervisor expectations will often force us to work longer hours than we would otherwise prefer. I won’t make a blanket statement as to best sleep practices for those who are stuck in difficult working situations. But for the managers among you who are driving work culture, I cite a RAND Corporation study that asserts that sleep deprivation is associated with productivity losses. Creativity, efficiency, motivation, emotional stability and even honesty all suffer when employees don’t sleep enough.
Sleep, and the lack thereof, is ultimately a societal issue. We live in a time where technological advances have ostensibly led to increased productivity – but these same productivity gains have actually led to the unstated expectation that we fit even more into each of our days. And as The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman points out, “In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing…Indeed, if you are among the growing ranks of the self-employed, as a freelancer or a worker in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency may be essential to your survival.” Sadly, sleep may only be a luxury of the privileged who can, without interference from outside forces, completely control their schedules. Parents trying to make ends meet working multiple jobs should be lauded, and their lack of sleep, while ultimately not sustainable, is certainly understandable. And this is why the issue of sleep ultimately leads us to work-life balance. There is not sufficient space here to explore the issue further, but I submit that if we accept sleep as essential, and as relevant to broader public health, then we must also take a hard look at our societies’ views on work and success. If professional success is inextricably linked to long hours, and draining mental and physical demands, then the society will ultimately suffer. I do not pretend to have a policy prescription – far from it. But it is my hope that our conversation about rest and wellness will shift, and that the thought of a full night’s sleep may be more than just a fleeting fantasy.