Sleep, Naps, and Custom-Fit Slumber

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 an 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.

We know we’re getting enough sleep, when we feel energetic and clear—and not just in the wake of that 8:00 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. Here are some 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.

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