As modern schedules, stress, and technology tax our ability to get a good night’s rest, researchers have gained new insight into sleep quality—and how to restore it.
Why people need rest and what happens to the mind and body during sleep remain enduring mysteries. But humans have intuitively grasped a connection between sufficient sleep and good health and emotional functioning. A wave of findings over the past two decades has established just how crucial quality sleep is. We now know, for example, that the effects on the body of accumulating a large sleep debt—the difference between how much sleep we need and how much we get—mimic some hallmarks of aging and can increase the severity of conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. And new research has found that in people experiencing sleep deprivation pain hurts more: Our pain threshold falls about 15 percent after just one night of insufficient rest. As such awareness has grown, though, so has anxiety among those who fail to get enough sleep, a group that includes at least one in three adults in the United States, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2018 Sleep in America Poll. And yet, only 10 percent report prioritizing sleep over other goals like exercise and nutrition. That needs to change. Fortunately, we have the ability to recover from many of the effects of poor sleep. It starts with both an honest reckoning of how we may sabotage our evenings and a commitment to adopt strategies proven in the nation’s leading sleep labs.
Falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow is not proof that you’re a good sleeper. In fact, it’s more likely an indication that you’re sleep deprived, says neurologist W. Christopher Winter. In general, it should take about 10 to 20 minutes for a person to drift off. But whether it takes 20 or 45, “you simply have to think it’s too long for it to be too long,” says Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
If you’re not comfortable with how long it takes to go to sleep, first review your bedtime routine. Most people have heard the standard sleep hygiene advice: Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark. Use your bed only for sex and sleep. Avoid caffeine from mid-afternoon on. And avoid all screens for at least an hour before turning in. Our screens’ melatonin-inhibiting blue light delays sleep latency by an average of 10 minutes, according to a 2015 Harvard study. Actually nodding off in front of a screen, as 61 percent of adults confess to having done, is a problem as well. “Light from the TV can go through your eyelids, so your brain still processes that you’re being exposed to light,” says Ken Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We’d expect that this would lead to more fragmented sleep and more arousals throughout the night wherein your heart races or your brain waves speed up.” These effects stave off reaching deep sleep, which research suggests is more refreshing than lighter stages.