Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep: The Do's, Don'ts and What We Still Don't Know
Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) platform is frequently used as a window into the souls of famous innovators and entrepreneurs: Elon Musk answered questions about his hygiene habits, Bill Gates shared details about his evolving work ethic and Buzz Aldrin discussed his view on tourism trips to Mars.
But the popular forum has other uses besides uncovering the habits and philosophies of the rich and famous: it’s good at disseminating practical advice, too. Last week, Wendy Troxel, a sleep researcher and adjunct professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, took to the platform to answer users’ questions about what we all dream of achieving: A good night’s sleep.
She shared some helpful do’s and don’ts when it comes to achieving quality rest, as well as a few questions for which researchers still don’t have concrete answers.
After an overworked week, it can be tempting to overdose on sleep, but spending too much time in bed doesn’t necessarily lead to an uptick in energy – instead, it can have the opposite effect. “When we sleep too much we often experience ‘sleep inertia’ (‘the body asleep tends to want to stay asleep’) -- and when that happens we often feel that groggy/ fatigued state,” Troxel said. As good as it feels in the moment, drifting off again after you’ve already woken up – even on weekends – may lead to a lethargic, drowsy day.
Do maintain a consistent wake-up time.
This directly relates to Troxel’s previous point: maintaining a regular sleep schedule throughout the week is key to achieving a healthy sleep cycle. This means getting up at a consistent time each day – even on weekends. “The time you wake up in the morning is actually even more important than the time you go to bed for ensuring a healthy night of sleep, because wake-up time helps to set your biological clock,” she said.
Don’t bring your work to bed with you.
The bed, advised Troxel, should be for “sleep and sex only.” While all artificial light before bed has been shown to delay natural sleep cycles, the blue light from electronic screens is particularly harmful.
“Remove all technology from the bedroom -- and ‘disconnect’ from technology (cell phones, etc.) at least one hour before bedtime,” she wrote. For a restful night, “avoid engaging in other behaviors -- work, watching TV, etc. in the bedroom.”
Don’t try to get by on too little sleep.
Marissa Mayer, Elon Musk and Tim Cook are among the many successful entrepreneurs to publicly announced that they thrive on far less than the recommended eight hours a night. But attempting to follow-in their footsteps is a fool’s errand. Wrote Troxel, “I think as a society we really suffer because we hold up specific examples of successful people who survived on little sleep, and hope that we can be the same, instead of realizing that, while there are clearly exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of research suggests quite strongly that as a species we think, behave, function, and feel better when we get adequate sleep.”
Do cut down on the time spent in bed if you aren’t sleeping through the night.
Many of us know the feeling, and it’s terrible: lying in bed, wide awake, recalculating how tired we’ll be in the morning as the minutes slip away. If you consistently find yourself in this position– in other words, if your sleep efficiency is low (the time you spend in bed is significantly longer than the time you actually sleep) -- consider going to bed later, a technique known as sleep restriction. “Instead of extending your time in bed in hopes to achieve even a small proportion of sleep within that window, try to limit your time in bed,” Troxel said. “I'm not suggesting you cut away any more sleep, just cut away that time you are in bed not sleeping.”
What we still don’t know:
Why we sleep.
While researchers know that sleep is “critically important for our survival and every aspect of our health and functioning…we still can’t pinpoint a single reason ‘why’ we do it,” said Troxel. It’s likely that because sleep is doing so many different things simultaneously, it’s hard to identify a single overarching reason for its existence. “The prevailing theories that I find most interesting focus on the role that sleep plays in the body's recovery and rejuvenation as well as playing a role in helping the brain ‘clear out debris’ that builds up during the day,” she continued, pointing to a recent study that suggests the brain is able to get rid of amyloid beta (a substance linked to Alzheimer's disease) more quickly during sleep than during wakefulness.
How affective naps are at restoring health benefits
Can periodic naps throughout the day replace a single block of sleep at night? The jury’s still out, according to Troxel: “I think we need more data to determine if sleeping in smaller "chunks" as opposed to a consolidated 7-8 hours of sleep provides the same health benefits that we attribute to a solid night of sleep.”
Related: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?