Thomas Dekker said that “Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” We know this to be intuitively true, but our modern day lives mitigate against healthy sleep practices, confusing and confounding our natural biological tendencies.
Sleep myth #1 - What’s enough?
Everyone needs at least 7 hours of sleep a night. So actually there is no one-size-fits-all. The US CDC Sleep education materials recommend a range of sleep times depending on age. For adults >18 years old the bell-shaped curve of sleep times suggests that the majority of people fall in the 7 to 9 hour window, but there are significant numbers of individuals on both ends of the continuum.
The CDC Short Sleep statistics goes on to report an alarming trend towards shorter sleep by geographical distribution. Perhaps even more disquieting short sleep is further correlated with a number of health risks including obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and depression.
Research shows that there are a couple of rare genes that allow individuals to function well on fewer hours of sleep, but they are relatively uncommon. Most of us are so envious of this trait that we strive to mold our bodies to emulate them, leading us to consume more caffeine or stay up later to be more productive. But our bodies know the truth.
If you aren’t sure if your body needs more sleep, there's only one way to find out: give it a try for a week or two to see how you feel in terms of energy level, focus, memory. There is no more worthwhile experiment, because sleep is hands down the best medicine and protection we have for our body and brain.
Sleep myth #2 - Catch up with naps
While I generally am a proponent of the more-sleep-is-better school of thought, I would caution that naps are inherently tricky because they can potentially interfere with your chance of getting a continuous block of sleep at night.
This can be a bit of a vicious cycle in the sense that if you have trouble sleeping at night, you are more likely to be tired and want a nap. But like caffeine, naps do reduce sleep pressure which means that if you have a long nap late in the day, you are more likely to have trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep that night.
If you do have trouble with sleep at night, experts would agree that it’s best to try to avoid napping during the day if possible for a while to see if this helps with night time sleep. Naps do not allow our brains to get into the deeper phases of truly restorative sleep, and they may be a sign of poor quality sleep that requires further investigation. If you must nap, it’s best to do short “power” naps earlier in the day.
Sleep myth #3 - Catch up on weekends
Many of us have grown up believing that it’s okay to sacrifice our sleep during the busy weekdays, because we can catch up on the weekends. Perhaps the most extreme example of this behavior occurs in college when you have to get up early for classes, but then you stay up late to party on weekends when you get to sleep in past noon. But unfortunately our bodies don’t work that way.
Sleep is linked to long term hygiene and repair mechanisms that impact our risk for developing dementia.
This weekend schedule shifting phenomenon is known to sleep researchers as social jetlag and it can be as damaging as short sleep. Our sleep is structured to be most effective when we get continuous uninterrupted blocks of 7-9 hours consistently every night.
The brain is actually programmed to perform different functions earlier and later in the night. By shifting your sleep schedule you are messing with your diurnal rhythms and potentially interfering with memory retrieval and storage as well as important mechanisms of immune and metabolic function.
Your sleep protocol
So the bottom line is that it’s pretty much up to each of us to figure out for ourselves how to design our own sleep flow protocols. Sleep flow is a term coined by sleep expert Dr Carol Yuan-Duclair to encompass our bedtime habits, sleep, and outcomes. The best protocols are the ones that you customize for yourself through trial and error.
For example, you probably already have a pretty good idea of whether you are a “morning person” or not but if you are not sure, try shifting your schedule for a couple of weeks to see if you feel more energy or focus during the day.
Neuroscience is finding more and more evidence to link sleep not only to daily brain performance, but also to long term hygiene and repair mechanisms that impact our risk for developing dementia as we age. Your body and brain will definitely thank you for investing the time and effort into dialling in this critical cornerstone of health and wellness.
Dr Carol Yuan Duclair is a board-certified pulmonary and sleep specialist offering sleep consultation services by remote consultation.
US CDC website offers insights into health risks associated with short sleep including driving/occupational hazards as supported by statistical data.