In most people’s daily schedule, sleep seems to get the shortest shrift. When work, a social life or other commitments assume priority, most people cut back on sleep in order to meet the demand. However, sleep is a crucial ingredient for a productive, creative and fulfilling life.
The first element to address is the amount of sleep: Approximately eight hours a night, depending on the individual, is the recommended amount for most adults. But many people find it difficult to accrue eight hours a night, due to a number of reasons.
What are some of the most common reasons for reduced sleep?
“Too much alcohol, caffeine and sugar,” said Deborah Wiancek, a naturopathic doctor from the Riverwalk Natural Health & Natural Pharmacy in Edwards. “You can get a better night’s rest by eliminating these disruptive ingredients.”
But what if the problem is the quality of sleep, not the quantity?
Even if the requisite eight hours are spent lying in bed, it’s often the quality — not the quantity — that matters. To improve the quality of sleep, try these simple steps recommended by James Maas, Ph.D., former Weiss Presidential Fellow and professor of psychology at Cornell University; Maas was also a speaker at the Vail Living Well Summit in September.
✚ Determine your Personal Sleep Quotient (PSQ)
“Your PSQ is the optimum amount of sleep that your body needs to function at its best,” Maas said. “Failing to reach your personal sleep requirement diminishes concentration, productivity and work quality.”
To establish your PSQ, pick a bedtime at least eight hours before you need to get up, but when you think you’ll fall asleep quickly. Resolve to adhere to this bedtime for the next week, making note of when you wake up. If you find that you need an alarm to wake up, it’s hard to get out of bed or you’re groggy, you need more sleep. Move your bedtime up by 15 to 30 minutes the next week. Do this until you can wake up without an alarm and feel alert all day.
When you think you’ve found your ideal bedtime, cut off 15 minutes. See if you’re sleepy the next day. If you are, congratulations! You’ve found your PSQ. Add those minutes back and you’re ready to roll — or sleep, as it were.
✚ Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
“Every day means seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Maas said. “Regularity is vital for setting and stabilizing your body’s biological clock.”
You’ll be more alert by sticking to a schedule than if you amassed the same total amount of time. Eventually, this regularity will reduce the total amount of sleep time you need for alertness, enabling you to perform as well on a little less sleep.
✚ Sleep in one continuous block
Sometimes it’s impossible, but “fragmented sleep” is not restorative and causes daytime drowsiness. Actually, six hours of continuous sleep is better than eight hours of fragmented sleep.
“Many people use snooze buttons thinking that they’ll get an extra hour of sleep after the first alarm goes off,” Maas said. “Wrong! If you set the alarm to ring every 15 minutes for an hour, at best, you might get 18 to 20 minutes worth of fragmented sleep. It’s much better to go to bed one hour earlier and wake up naturally.”
✚ Make Up for lost sleep as soon as possible
It’s a 2:1 ratio: Every two hours that you’re awake requires an hour of sleep. For example, after 16 hours of being awake, you need eight hours of sleep. When you ignore this rule, your sleep debt accumulates quickly and you’ll get sick, your performance will suffer and you’ll crash.
“Make up for lost sleep by not trying to make up for it all at once,” Maas said. Get a few more hours of sleep over the next few days until you feel better. “You can also catch up on lost sleep by going to bed earlier, not sleeping late.”
Sleeping in on the weekend is not going to help, as your brain doesn’t have a separate biological clock for weekends. Trying to cram in sleep on the weekends is like creating your own personal jet lag without leaving the country.
Improving your sleep isn’t a quick fix, though you can start good habits today.
“For years of accumulated sleep debt, it may take as long as four to six weeks until you discipline your sleep,” Maas said. “But the resulting alertness, mental and physical performance, and enjoyment of life will be more than worth the discipline it took to get there.”
“Every day means seven days a week, 365 days a year. Regularity is vital for setting and stabilizing your body’s biological clock.”
James Maas, Ph.D.
Former Weiss Presidential Fellow and professor of psychology at Cornell University