According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need seven hours of sleep every 24 hours. Yet when we fall behind in work or school, sleep is often the first thing to go when we try to catch up. We talked to Dr. Boris Chernobilsky, director of Sleep and Airway Surgery at Mount Sinai Downtown-Union Square, about the importance of sleep.
Why is sleep so essential to us?
It is a crucial time of both physical and mental repair; many hormones like growth and thyroid hormones are released during non-[rapid-eye-movement] sleep while we dream and reorganize our thoughts during REM allowing for improved learning and memory. We increase higher levels of certain essential hormones and we review and integrate the previous day’s events into our memories while we dream in during REM.
How does sleep deprivation affect us, physically and mentally?
Lack of sleep is linked to so many problems it is hard to list them all. Of the important ones: higher mortality rates, morning headaches, erectile dysfunction, depression, poor short-term memory. Getting less than the required amount of sleep is equivalent to having a high blood-alcohol level when measuring tasks like reaction time in a driving-brake simulator. Weight gain is a major issue because insulin metabolism is altered by sleep deprivation.
How can we ensure a good night’s sleep?
Keeping the same bedtime, the room very dark, quiet and cool are important. Avoid doing any non-sleep-related activities in bed since your brain may start associating the bed with “it’s reading or eating time” rather than “it’s sleep time.” Avoid screen time or bright lights 30 minutes prior to bedtime. Avoid going to bed with drugs or alcohol in your system.
Is our sleep quality affected by sleep aids?
Certain things that people use as sleep aids actually worsens sleep quality: Benadryl and alcohol both fragment the sleep cycle. Other sleep aids can alter sleep staging or the amount of REM someone gets. The significance of this is not fully understood.
What can people who have insomnia do, outside of taking medication?
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia has been shown to be just as effective if not slightly more effective than medicine. Get out of bed after 10 min and go read with a low reading light on the couch or in a chair until you are drowsy again.
Are naps a good idea?
Depends — they can be great. A 20-minute power nap can be incredibly effective and refreshing. A longer nap can actually cause grogginess, and a nap too late in the day can worsen someone’s sleep cycle since they may not be sleepy enough when it is time for their natural bed time.
If we haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep, but missing work or school isn’t possible, how to safely get through the day?
Take public transportation. Driving while sleep deprived leads to car accidents. Avoid operating any heavy machinery. Coffee is safe and effective in moderation but I don’t recommend it after 3 p.m. for a normal sleep cycle since it might prevent you from getting to sleep at bedtime. A power nap late in the morning or early afternoon can be extremely effective as well if you can squeeze one in.