Sweet dreams are made of this

Christmas and New Year’s are often the times many people “catch up” on their sleep.

But there is a stereotype in the modern world that sleep is a sign of weakness, laziness and advancing age.

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Both statements are wrong.

As Matthew Walker points out in his excellent book Why We Sleep, there is no such thing as catching up on sleep. Every day is a new day and every night is a new night to sleep. Getting four hours of sleep one night will affect your mind and body for days to come. If you sleep ten hours the following night, those effects may be diminished but they won’t go away.

Furthermore, getting a good amount of quality sleep every night is as valuable to physical and mental health as eating vegetables and regular exercise.

Despite the fact sleep takes up about one-third of our lives, scientists largely ignored sleep for centuries as a field of study. Except for a curiosity about the meaning of dreams, sleep was dismissed as necessary downtime for recharging.

It was only in modern times, as biologists saw the diversity of sleeping habits across the animal kingdom and neuroscientists could use machines to peek into the human brain while sleeping, that curiosity increased about sleep.

These days, sleep has become as much of a health obsession as dieting, with a lucrative industry to match. Along with the drugs, the supplements, the fancy pillows and the smart beds, there are the books and the apps. Most cell phones dim and soften the screen light in the evening, for example.

In his book, Walker encourages people to use their phones to give them an alarm not to wake up but to chime when it’s time to get ready for bed. Going to bed at a regular time eliminates the need for a wake-up alarm for many people, who naturally wake up right around their usual time.

Comparing sleep to diet is important, Walker stresses, because the science shows they both play a huge role in physical and mental health.

A growing amount of studies show a significant connection between sleep and obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s. Sleep helps regulate our appetite and our metabolism, as well as boosting our immune system and our ability to think calmly and rationally. Learning and memory are directly tied to sleeping, both in the ability to absorb new information in the short-term and retain it in the long-term.

Like food, there is bad sleep and good sleep. Bad sleep is slumber while under the influence of caffeine and/or alcohol, too much noise and/or light, too warm or too cold and too many interruptions. 

Napping is like snacking. If necessary, it’s best in small portions in the middle of the day. 

A good night’s sleep is as beneficial as an hour of brisk exercise and it provides the same peaceful, exhilarating feelings when it happens.

That’s why professional sports teams, particularly the ones on Pacific time like the Seattle Seahawks and the Vancouver Canucks that frequently have to travel to play the majority of the teams located in the Eastern time zone, now make sleep part of the overall fitness and nutrition routine for their players. 

Walker’s suggestions to improve sleep are as common sense as cutting back on junk food and couch surfing – don’t drink booze or coffee in the evening, don’t exercise or nap after dinner and don’t eat before bed. Relaxing before tucking in for the night (a warm bath, a book, listening to music) and making the bedroom dark, quiet, cool and free of gadgets are essential ingredients to quality slumber time.

And don’t lie in bed awake.

Sleep should be a positive experience, Walker emphasizes, so if you can’t sleep, get up and do something relaxing that doesn’t involve electronics or bright light. As most know from experience, the stress of not being able to fall asleep just makes it harder to fall asleep.

If two of your New Year’s resolutions are eating better and getting more exercise, start with a good sleep each night at a regular bedtime. That alone will give you more energy and willpower to lay off the junk food and get up off the couch.

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