We need eight hours, yes. But all at once?
Americans have a twisted relationship with sleep. Most of us, when asked, would say that we don’t get enough. We’re too busy, we’re too wired, we can’t manage to stay in bed past 6 am. But then we do all the things we know we’re not supposed to: triple lattes in the afternoon, late-night snacks, e-mailing on our smartphones from under the covers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 41 million of us get six or fewer hours of sleep per night, a fact that stresses us out and causes us to sleep still less. As a collective group, we’re exhausted.
But a recent opinion piece in the New York Times aimed to remove some of the anxiety surrounding sleep. David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, questioned the “tyranny of the eight-hour block,” saying that the pressure to get a certain amount of shut-eye all at once was as anxiety-provoking as that triple latte. What’s more, he wrote, we might not actually need, or be able to use, all that sleep. He suggested that we revisit how and when we sleep, calling for midday naps and other short bursts of custom-fit slumber, pointing to studies that suggest any deep sleep primes our brains and bodies for optimal function. For some of us that might mean eight straight hours; for others, that could be a 30-minute snooze.
Susan B. Lord MD, a faculty member in Kripalu’s Healthy Living programs, agrees that the eight-hour sleep prescription is shortsighted, and doesn’t take into account the fact that everyone is unique. “Just like one person may need 40 times more zinc than another person to stay healthy, we tend to look at sleep as one size fits all, which isn’t the best way,” she says. “Sleep is something you should explore within the context of your life, personality, strengths, and imbalances. That means having an honest assessment of your lifestyle and asking yourself whether you’re meeting your needs or not.” Some people may function perfectly well on six hours a night. Many of us need eight or nine. But the basic idea: There’s no “right” number.
We know we’re getting enough sleep, says Susan, when we feel energetic and clear—and not just in the wake of that 8 am cup of joe. And how much we need really depends on what else is going on in our lives. “We need more when we’re sick, for example, or stressed, but how much more depends on the individual,” says Susan, who shares a recent experience of a long drive home after a late appointment. “I was exhausted, so I pulled over and slept for exactly seven minutes,” she says. “Afterward, I felt fine. There is something to be said for responding to what we need in the moment.” Not to mention practicing a little non-attachment, considering the tremendous stress that comes along with thinking that we’re not getting enough sleep. “If we’re a little more relaxed that we can meet our sleep needs in a variety of ways,” says Susan, “we’re more likely to sleep longer.”
Though she advises exploring your own best practices, Susan offers some basic ground rules for achieving restful sleep:
Minimize caffeine. Many people don’t realize how sensitive they might be to caffeine, but even that morning cup can affect your sleep later on.
Go sugar-free. A sugary breakfast can destabilized glucose levels for a full 24 hours, which can wake you from a sleep; sugar later in the day is even worse. This is also why we tend to have poorer sleep when we drink alcohol. As the alcohol leaves our bodies, the blood sugar dip disrupts our slumber.
Unplug. It’s not just about turning off your brain, though that helps, too. The electromagnetic waves that our laptops and phones emit can be very stimulatory. Prepare for sleep by shutting everything down at least a few hours in advance.
Adjust. If you just can’t sleep more than five hours, get up. Then try to organize your day so that you can nap in the afternoon, or perhaps head to bed a little earlier—if that’s what you feel you need.