The science of sleep: How to tackle tiredness

Obtaining a sufficient amount of sleep is important to maintain optimal physiological and psychological functioning

In this day and age, many of us can relate to obtaining less sleep than we’d like. This is partly due to the fast-paced environment we live in. Work, school, social, and family obligations tend to keep us busy during the day and may cut into our sleep time at night. A recent survey revealed that 96% of adults reported feeling tired upon awakening and close to 40% reported having fallen asleep during a meeting or at their desk.

Most people need roughly 8 hours of sleep each night. Aside from feeling groggy the next day, obtaining less than 7 hours of sleep has been shown to significantly decrease alertness, reaction time, concentration and decision making abilities. This may subsequently impair our daytime functioning at school or work.  Sleep loss has also been associated with memory problems, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers.  A new study this week has shown that a lack of sleep may be putting some people at a greater risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

As such, obtaining a sufficient amount of sleep is important to maintain optimal physiological and psychological functioning.

There are many reasons as to why we may not get as much sleep as we’d like. This may be simply because we are not allowing ourselves adequate time for sleep. People may have trouble falling asleep due to stress, anxiety, hectic schedules, getting caught up thinking about the tasks required for the next day, or just feeling too alert at bedtime.

People who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia may have a particularly difficult time obtaining a restful night of sleep. Shift workers, and those involved in 24-hour operations, may find themselves having trouble sleeping due to misalignment of the body’s internal clock.  An acute form of this may affect those who travel across time zones—a phenomenon referred to as jet lag.

Although there is still debate as to why we need to sleep, we do know that obtaining a sufficient amount of sleep on a regular basis is important for physical and mental performance, mood, and health.

Regardless of your sleep struggles, here are some tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:

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Go to bed at the same time every night including weekends. After a few nights you should notice that it is easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Staying up late on the weekends and sleeping in the next day can make it harder to go to bed and get up early on Monday morning.

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Keep a TV out of the bedroom. Use your bedroom solely for sleep—this will train your brain to associate your bed with only sleeping.

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Avoid bright lights, including electronics before bedtime. Light can affect your internal body clock, making it harder to fall asleep at night and stay awake during the day.

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Get some exercise. In addition to the health benefits associated with light to moderate exercise, this can also help you sleep. If you do exercise however, try to do this a few hours before bedtime in order to allow your body time to return to a relaxed state.

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Keep the temperature in your bedroom at night slightly cooler than what you keep it during the daytime. We tend to sleep better with slightly lower ambient temperatures.

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Avoid caffeine several hours before bed. Aside from being a stimulant that keeps you awake, caffeine can interfere with the deeper stages of sleep.

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Avoid alcohol several hours before bedtime. Although alcohol may help you fall asleep, it also interferes with the deeper stages of sleep and causes sleep disruption later in the sleep period, resulting in less restorative sleep.

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Related to this, stay hydrated. Dehydration puts your body in stress-mode and may cause you to be somewhat restless. However, don’t drink so much fluid that you have to get up to use the restroom in the night.

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If you are struggling to fall asleep and have been trying to sleep for at least 30 minutes, it is sometimes good to get up rather than lying in bed for a long period of time. However, you should do something relaxing like reading a book and should avoid light exposure as much as possible.  

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If you are unable to obtain sufficient amounts of sleep during your primary sleep period, a good countermeasure to sleepiness is a “power nap”—a quick nap between 20-25 minutes.

Amy Sparrow is a Research Assistant at the Sleep and Performance Research Center, Washington State University Spokane

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