Weird Ways Sleep BS Royally Messes Up Our Programs
Even before we had to worry about things like unemployment, social isolation, and not catching a possibly-lethal virus, humans were, in general, sleep-deprived. Now that we're in full-on pandemic mode turning off our brains and catching some shuteye has become an even more daunting task. Many who aren't suffering from Covid-19 are suffering from its evil relative called, unimaginatively, "coronavirus-induced insomnia." But knowing you're tired is half the battle; the big problems happen when we don't realize -- or admit -- how tired we are, or take steps to address the punishment our lack of sleep is meting out on our bodies. Such as ...
No, You're Probably Tired ... Even If You Think You're Fine
There are plenty of opportunities for personal preference when it comes to sleep. Back or side? Pajamas or naked? Bed or the bushes outside Danny DeVito's house? But in one fundamental way, virtually every human adult is the same: we all require at least seven hours of sleep every night for our bodies to function properly and be healthy.
Now, if you just read that and already thought to yourself, "Pshhh, I do fine on five hours of sleep" or "I'm never tired, and I never sleep that much," then you're likely part of a growing problem. Over 35% of adults in the United States alone aren't getting the requisite 7 hours of sleep per night, and it's turning our bodies to dogshit. According to research, short sleep duration (ie, anything less than 7 hours a day) significantly increases our risk for things like heart attacks, strokes, coronary artery disease, diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, and cancer. In other words, sleep is one of your body's vital functions, just like breathing and having a heartbeat, and we're harming ourselves when we're not getting enough.
"But," you say, "I'm honestly not tired!" Here's the kicker: if you're sleeping less than seven hours a day and don't feel tired, that's probably an indicator of just how exhausted you truly are. Researchers found that sleeping "only" six hours a night for two entire weeks "produced cognitive performance deficits equivalent to up to two nights of total sleep deprivation." That's right -- after sleeping six or fewer hours per night for two or more weeks, your brain functions as if it's been awake for two solid days. The worst part of all this? The research subjects were "largely unaware of these increasing cognitive deficits." In other words, they had no idea they were becoming dumbasses. Face it: if you're sleeping less than seven hours a day, even if you think you're okay, you're actually tired.
No, You Really Can't Just Sleep "Whenever" -- The Later You Go to Bed, The More Likely You Are to Miss Peak Sleep
Well, now that we've gotten the bad news about how much we need to sleep out of the way, it's time to talk about when we need to sleep. As you might have sussed out, human beings are programmed to be awake when the sun's up and rest while the sun's down. For the majority of human existence, our ancestors had little choice about when to wake and when to sleep, as trying to hunt animals with better night vision than you is how you end up wolf poop.
But then some smart guy went and developed electricity, and another genius made light bulbs, and things have pretty much been downhill since then. Scientists at the University of Washington decided to study how access to electricity affects people's sleep, and they came to the groundbreaking conclusion that artificial light sources led humans to sleep 1) later and 2) less.
The trouble is, we really can't just sleep "whenever" and expect to get adequate rest. Our bodies are hardwired to go to bed around sundown, and the quality of our sleep diminishes as the night wears on -- moving from a more restorative deep sleep, toward a lighter REM sleep that includes dreaming. If you go to bed relatively early -- say 9 pm -- your body should get multiple cycles of deep sleep before getting to the dream-heavy hours of the early morning. But if the early morning is your bedtime, your body can't just start with the deep sleep cycles that are typical of earlier sleep. So basically you get all the weird dreams about your teeth turning to sand, TV characters mocking your genitals, or unicorn proms, but none of the stuff that actually helps repair your body.
Studies have shown that the genes of people working the night shift never adapt to the body's immune or metabolic processes to accommodate a reversed schedule. Our bodies have a circadian rhythm reinforced by hundreds of thousands of years of biology, and that's almost impossible to override. Need another reason to hit the sack early? Research shows that the later you go to bed, the more likely you are to lay awake obsessing over negative thoughts, and the later your average bedtime, the less you will probably sleep overall.
No, Reading a Book to Fall Asleep Doesn't Work if You Have an eReader
Okay, so what if you're in bed early, ready to embrace some quality rest, only to find that you can't fall asleep? Cue the typical, cliche recommendations like rubbing one out or reading a book. While the outcome of former is literally in your hands, there's quite a bit of research on the benefits of latter. One major study showed that reading for just six uninterrupted minutes can reduce your stress levels by a whopping 68%. Another showed that reading for 30 minutes significantly lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, and overall stress level just as effectively as yoga or other stress-relieving activities. Sounds great, right?
See, part of what makes books relaxing and sleep-inducing is the fact that they're not electronic. Or at least they weren't historically. These days, most of the people who actually do read books do their reading on e-readers or iPads, both of which emit artificial "blue" light, which is awful for sleep. One study showed that participants who read from an e-reader had a harder time falling asleep and were less alert the following day. Another study found that, in addition to being less sleepy and more tired the following day, people who read via an electronic device have "acutely suppressed" levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep cycle.
The effects of artificial light on sleep are so dramatically negative that we're better off not reading at all than reading on an e-reader before bed. Technology is fantastic and all, but this is one time we're really better off going with a good, old-fashioned ink-and-paper book. Or an audiobook with a really boring narrator.
Smoking And Alcohol Both Decrease Sleep Quality
Yeah, yeah. We get it. We've told you how you're courting death by not sleeping more and earlier, while simultaneously saying that your e-reader was a waste of money. But, that late-night smoking and drinking are also shitting all over your sleep (in addition to your liver and lungs). In one study, using nicotine within four hours of bedtime resulted in a more disrupted, shorter night's sleep. Another showed that cigarette smokers were four times as likely to feel unrested after a night's sleep. And according to a third study, the adverse effects of nicotine increased in proportion to the severity of the participants' addiction; in other words, the more you smoke, the worse you'll sleep. Aaaaand, it isn't just cigarette smoking that's a problem. Studies show that smoking weed diminishes the quality of our REM sleep, a problem that can persist for months, even following complete cessation.
Nicotine isn't the only substance that will ruin a night of sleep, either. We're well aware that a drink before bed is something of a longstanding tradition -- they call it a "nightcap" for reason -- but it's not all it's cracked up to be. Alcohol can indeed make you sleepy quickly, but it also decreases your body's melatonin production by about 20%, which throws your entire sleep cycle out of whack and leaves you feeling unrested the next day. So while you might enjoy the fast track to slumber, as the night progresses and your body metabolizes the alcohol in your system, that sedative effect wears off. When that happens, you're left in a sort of rebound wakefulness - a light, fitful sleep with frequent awakenings. The more you drink, and the closer to your bedtime you do so, the more disrupted your "sleep architecture" will be.
Basically, alcohol makes you sleep but keeps you from getting much benefit from it. And if you're going to devote hours to lying in bed, shouldn't you have something to show for it besides possibly peeing your bed?
You Can't Just Fix Things With A Coffee Band-Aid -- After Three Nights of Sub-Par Sleep, Coffee No Longer Improves Alertness Or Performance
Now for the really, really bad news. Some 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed every single year, and understandably so. It's the life source. Go-juice. The breakfast of champions. But there's one major thing science says our precious, precious coffee can't do: make up for lost sleep. Well, at least not long-term. Researchers found that caffeine does help improve alertness and performance when your sleep is restricted ... but only for two nights. Research subjects whose sleep was limited to five or fewer hours for a third night in a row no longer got any boost or improvement from caffeinated coffee compared to placebo. In other words, coffee can help compensate for an odd weekend of crappy sleep, but not a lifestyle of too little rest.
Just to be clear, those of us who worship the coffee gods every morning do indeed feel like garbage till we've had our first, second, or third cup. But studies show that's actually due to overnight withdrawal, and the Joe we drink in the morning merely makes up for the caffeine infusion we didn't get while we were asleep. In reality, morning coffee drinkers were no more alert than their non-drinking counterparts. Something you might want to think over before deciding to upgrade to coffee enemas:
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