How Your Habits Are Harming Your Health: Sleep
Written by Cameron Edmonds
Think about what you do on a daily basis. Most likely you follow a routine that looks pretty similar every day. Maybe you could even go as far to say you have daily habits. A habit is defined as, “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” The end of that definition really says something: “one that is hard to give up.” Most likely your habits are something you are very comfortable with or almost rely on, to function. These habits, routines, customs, can become so repetitive that you don’t even think about them. They just become a part of your nature.
For example, think about your nightly weekday routine. You probably turn off the Netflix show you are watching, brush your teeth, use the restroom, and crawl into bed. This would be considered a healthy habit or routine, but the exact opposite exists. Now, think about your Saturday night routine. After going out to eat to your favorite pizza place, you head to the bar for a few cocktails with some friends. Then you head home to eat a half pint of Ben and Jerry’s (or whole pint if you are really indulging), before crawling into bed at 2 am. That is clearly an extreme example, but you get the point. We all have routines and habits that give us comfort and make us feel good. But are these habits good for you, even though they make you feel good at the time?
First, let’s talk about sleep.
But why sleep first? Should we not talk about dietary habits or workout routines first? I thought we were trying to get fit? You may not think of it, but a good night’s rest is the most important part of forming healthy habits. Most people have the mindset that “sleep is for the weak,” or, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” In reality, sleep is for the strong. It will make it so you don’t die earlier than you should. Snoozing prevents heart disease and provides us with more productive days.
Doctor Mathew Walker, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the leading researcher on sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation. Walker says, “sleep functions like a fountain of youth.” There are so many benefits to getting enough sleep, and on the contrary, a lengthy list of health risks when not getting enough sleep.
Health concerns that result from not getting enough sleep can be some of the following: vulnerability to cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes, and heart attacks. More health concerns include increasing cognitive, emotional, and physiological stress, loss of memory, emotional processing and reactivity, and increased stress to name a few. Health concerns aside, strength gains, body fat reduction, and endurance are all decreased in relation to the decrease of sleep per night. “There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep”, says Dr. Walker.
If sleep is so important, then why are humans the only animals to “deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no sound reason,” according to Walker, but why do we do this? Maybe, humans deprive themselves of sleep because they are too busy binge-watching Netflix into the wee hours of the morning. Essentially, you become weaker, fatter, less conditioned, and put yourself at higher risk to a host of potentially preventable disease when you deprive yourself of sleep.
How to Improve Quality
So now we understand how important sleep is, but what are some good habits to improve yours? There are many things Walker suggests that we can do to get more z’s, as well as improve quality.
1. Go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning.
For those who have a consistent job schedule this can be easy to do, but when you factor in a family, crazy work schedules, and other distractions in life, this can be hard to do. My suggestion is to give yourself a general time frame to be in bed and wake up every day, say something reasonable like being in bed by 9-11 p.m. every day, and wake up between 5-7 a.m. every day.
You get the most quality sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., so this would be ideal if at all possible. The idea is to avoid staying up all night on the weekends, and avoid everyone’s favorite thing, “sleeping in.” Programming your circadian rhythms to occur around the same time every day will help you get more quality sleep, as well as have more energy during the day, and fall asleep easier at night.
2. Avoid caffeine of any kind after 1 p.m.
This can be hard for many people to get used to, especially if they have the habit of going to Starbucks on their lunch break. Caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours, this doesn’t mean that the effect is gone after this period of time, but it takes this long in your body to reduce half the amount of caffeine ingested. In other words, just because you don’t feel that strong coffee buzz anymore, doesn’t mean that the caffeine is still interfering with your body’s proper functions. It may be difficult to function through your day at first, but once your body has adjusted, you will have a much more natural energy to use, that a cup of coffee just can’t compare too.
3. Avoid any drugs or alcohol before bed that you think may help you fall asleep.
Contrary to popular belief, drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and sleeping pills, do not actually help you fall asleep easier or give you a better night’s rest by any means. Drugs and alcohol actually interfere with your normal sleep functions and don’t allow you to fall into deep REM sleep, where your brain recovers the most.
Quality of sleep can also be determined by the amount of alcohol, marijuana, or sleeping pills that are taken. Think about a time you had been partying at night, you probably had one too many drinks at some point in your life, and most likely you wake up the next morning groggy and with a headache. A hangover is often attributed to dehydration. However, lack of deep REM sleep through the previous night will also contribute to hangovers dreaded symptoms. So, before you think about having that nightcap before bed, think again. You will get your best night’s rest by simply allowing your body to relax on your own; consider meditation or reading if you feel like you can’t unwind at night, rather than heading to the liquor cabinet.
4. Sleep Hacks
Dr. Mathew Walker suggests a number of hacks, to get more quality sleep each night, in addition to the ones previously mentioned. The first tip is to set your room to a cool 65 degrees Fahrenheit, this may seem cold, but this is the optimum temperature for your body to get its best siesta. Another snooze hack is to make your room as dark as possible. Use black-out blinds and turn off all lights in the room. The last hack is to have a quiet environment to snooze in. Try to avoid sleeping near noisy roads, turn off the TV and the volume, and wear earplugs if needed.
To summarize, sleep is inevitable for all of us, none of us can escape the fact that we’re in need 7-8 hours of sleep each night to perform optimally. So, stop trying to cheat this fact with an entire pot of coffee in the morning and an energy drink in the middle of the day. Cut the TV show you are watching an episode short, turn off the screens, put down the beer, and you will find a better quality of sleep, which will make a huge change in your daily life. Follow the links below to learn more about sleep from the world’s leading sleep doctor, Dr. Mathew Walker.