You hear a lot of anecdotal advice about how we can all ‘get by’ on just a few hours of sleep a night. Historic world leaders are said to have masterminded entire war campaigns on just two hours shut-eye. But modern scientific evidence broadly suggests we need a whole lot more.
The usual recommendation is to try and get around eight hours sleep a night. What happens if we don’t? Lack of sleep is associated with a range of health issues, from the trivial to the super serious.
On the more hardcore end, a lack of sleep puts you at risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg; tiredness is also linked to high blood pressure, strokes, depression and accidents.
Less dramatically, lack of sleep prematurely ages your skin, can cause you to gain weight and generally just dumbs you down – you become less creative and more forgetful.
There’s a lot of science behind why lack of sleep is linked to all these effects, but new research is constantly furthering our understanding – this recent study found that reduced sleep can disrupt more than 700 genes which are vital for good health.
So we know that less sleep equals more health problems. We know that we need to get more sleep. But the problem is that typical modern lifestyles are exacerbating our sleep issues. Here’s some advice on how to make some marginal gains across your life and bag those precious extra hours of snoozing.
Never in human history have we had more things to distract us when we’re trying to sleep; laptops, smartphones and tablets are all easy things to bring into the bedroom. There’s a lot of interesting science to explain how artificial light and cognitive stimulation from electronic devices stops us being able to mentally power down.
In addition to checking emails and news stories and social media updates and anything else that provides a constant feed of information for our brains, games are designed with specific mechanics in place to make them more engaging and compelling.
To switch off our brains we need to switch off our devices. Try enforcing some kind of ‘nodevice’ zone or time where all these things are banned from the bedroom.
Sleep on your own
The more people you put in a bed together, the less sleep everyone’s going to get. Of course, if you’re piling three or four people into your bed sleep might be the last thing on your mind, but scientifically speaking having a bed-mate is a bad move in terms of peaceful slumber.
Research shows that separate beds are the key to a good night’s sleep with couples, so it might be time to ditch the queen-size and buy some singles. It’s a controversial argument, though, as what you gain in sleep you lose in intimacy. Do the marginal cost-benefit analysis and do works for you.
Get a better mattress
It turns out that mattresses really do make a difference in how you sleep – although we might not know which mattress is best for us. Of all the household products we buy, mattresses deserve some serious consideration. It is, after all, something that you spend serious money on, use every day and hang onto for years.
So invest some time in finding what size and – most importantly – firmness of the mattress is best for you, then browse for the best possible mattress you can buy.
Cut down on caffeine
Caffeine might seem like a lack of sleep ‘fixer’, as it gives you bursts of creative productivity. But the problem is that this is only temporary; it’s papering over the cracks by telling your brain
you’re not as low on energy as you actually are.
Even worse, long after the beneficial effects of energizing drinks have worn off, the caffeine hangs around in your system for between five and ten hours – meaning that a lunchtime or midafternoon coffee break could be affecting your ability to sleep at 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
Reduce your stress
Stress is a factor in insomnia. Our worries linger with us throughout the day, and all that anxiety stops us sleeping. There’s no quick fix to major stress elements in our lives, like a pressured job or money worries, but we can make plans for how we’ll tackle these problems and that can offload a lot of anxiety. At least, enough to allow us more sleep.
Another thing you can do is engineer wind-down time. Create a ‘buffer zone’ pre-bedtime to deactivate all the anxious thoughts flying around your head, so you’re more prepared to grab some sleep.
Try some natural sleeping tablets
Sleeping pills prescribed by doctors can offer temporary relief from insomnia, but they’re usually more commonly associated with serious sleeping disorders.
As a ‘lite’ version, try out some herbal sleeping tablets which could help gently relax your mind before bed. They’re made from relaxing natural extracts – usually valerian, hops and passion flower – and you could combine this with the buffer zone mentioned above.
Write down all your tasks and ideas
Creative people can often be overwhelmed with ideas, and are kept awake by their brain churning out thoughts and concepts. Similarly, more organised-minded people can be kept awake by lists of projects and tasks that need to be completed.
Obviously, your brain running wild with activity isn’t conducive to getting eight hours of sleep a night. So keep a pad and pen next to the bed, and if lists and ideas come to you when you’re trying to sleep pour everything out on paper – it’ll still be there in the morning.
Eat earlier in the evening
It might feel continental and cultured to eat late, but research has shown that eating later can not only keep you awake as your body digests food, it can contribute to gaining weight too.
According to scientists, when you eat is as important as what you eat. The easy way to combat this is simply to plan meals earlier in the evening, especially if they’re rich and spicy. Give your body more time to digest before you try to sleep.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.