When did you last play croquet with hedgehogs and flamingoes, find yourself challenged by riddles at a tea party with a hare and a dormouse, or become a pawn on a life-size game of chess?
You are not alone if you are missing Alice-like adventures. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that insufficient sleep has become a public health issue — “insufficient” referring to not only quantity but also quality of the body and mind’s restorative process.
“Sleep is not an optional lifestyle luxury; it is a non-negotiable, biological necessity,” Matthew Walker said in a TED Talk. The professor of neuroscience and psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and founder/director of its Center for Human Sleep Science, also called sleep “the most powerful elixir of life.”
“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life,” Walker asserts. When participants in a study were limited to six hours of sleep per night for one week, 711 genes were “distorted” in an overall detriment to a healthy immune system.
As for cognitive function, Walker points to a study in which one group had eight hours of sleep and another was deprived of sleep. MRI scans showed a
40 percent deficit among the second group in the ability to form memories.
In 2007, the World Health Organization classified nightshift work as being tantamount to exposure to a carcinogen because it disrupts humans’ natural circadian rhythm. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program has reported that the persistent disruption of circadian rhythms from nightshift work is associated with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and psychological issues, as well as increased risk for reproductive issues and cancer.
Walker refers to sleeping pills as “blunt instruments that do not produce naturalistic sleep.” Instead, he and other sleep experts recommend a range of methods for getting quality slumber. Using an anagram offers an easy way to remember them:
Schedule: Be consistent in the times you go to bed and get up.
Limitations: Avoid caffeine at least five hours before bedtime, alcohol three hours before bedtime, and dining late.
Electronics: Stop viewing televisions, computers, and smart phones for at least a half-hour before bedtime — or at least wear blue-light-blocking glasses.
Environment: Make your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Use (and keep hygienic) good-quality mattresses, pillows, and sheets — and replace when they become worn. If you find it difficult to fall asleep, try introducing scents such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang ylang .
Prepare: Expose your body to natural light and exercise during the day. If you have difficulty nodding off at night, try a warm bath, reading, taking a melatonin supplement, or snacking on a source of melatonin (see “Eat, Drink, and Be Sleepy”).
As for mattresses, different models suit individual preferences. Online research helps. SleepFoundation.org, for example, offers reviews of mattresses and bedding.
If you have symptoms that suggest a sleep disorder such as apnea, or if anxiety keeps you awake despite following the above SLEEP principles, seek help from a medical professional.
It may sound wasteful to spend a third of one’s life asleep, but the quality of the other two-thirds relies on it.