We live in an always-on world--hyperconnected, overloaded with information, and addicted to our screens, especially the smartphone soulmates that are constantly begging for our attention. We can joke about the many aberrant behaviors this causes, such as walking headlong into doors, walls, and each other, but where this behavior takes its greatest toll is on our sleep.
According to sleep.org, "71 percent of people sleep either holding their smartphone, having it in bed with them, or having it on their nightstand."
In a study I and my co-author, Dan Keldsen, did for The Gen Z Effect, we found that 10 percent of people, across all age groups, actually sleep with their smartphone in their bed or on the pillow next to them. While we didn't ask to verify, it's safe to assume these people are all single--or soon will be!
But smartphones are just one of the culprits robbing us of a good nights sleep.
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, has been studying sleep for decades, even going so far as to use sophisticated MRI techniques to peer into our dreams.
According to Walker, "the silent sleep loss epidemic is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century,"
Other research supports Walker's claims. A well-cited 2002 study actually associated poor sleep patterns with increased mortality. An Inc. article I wrote quoted studies that even went so far as to attribute Alzheimer's and dementia, in part, to poor sleep.
It would seem that however you look at it, sleep is a major factor in determining your health and well being as well as your overall quality of life and longevity.
So, what can you do to ensure that you get the best sleep? According to Walker, there are five basic things to consider.
1. Keep regular sleep hours
Set a schedule for your sleep and don't vary from it. This means going to sleep at the same time every night but also getting up at the same time every morning. In fact, you should get up at a set time even if you feel that you are not fully rested. In my own experience, I've found that the biggest disruptions to my sleep patterns have occurred when I've changed a set activity in my life that would otherwise require me to get up a the same time every day. So, go to bed at a set time and, whatever your quality of sleep, don't vary from the wake time.
2. Stay Cool
Keep your bedroom temperature cool. Your body requires at least a two-degree drop in its core temp to signal sleep. A room temperature of 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 18 degrees Celsius, is optimal. A great hack to help with this is an intelligent thermostat that allows you to set it so that the temp drops just after you get under the covers and goes back up just before you arise.
3. Turn the lights out
Dim the lights in your home at least one hour prior to sleep and keep your bedroom dark. Our bodies are tuned to the day/night cycle as one of the most important factors in producing melatonin, the neurochemical that triggers sleep.
It's especially important to stay away from LED screens that emit blue light, which puts the brakes on melatonin. Even if you're not using a computer screen, flat-panel LED TVs can be just as bad. The alternative? Read a paper book. You still remember what those are, right?
4. Remember, it's a bed, not a recliner
This means that you shouldn't use your bed to do things that keep you awake. OK, well, let's eliminate the other obvious use case. But with that exception, your bed is just for sleeping, not watching TV, checking email, or catching up on the 247 Facebook posts you missed during the day. Unfortunately, using a bed to do all of the above has become such a cultural phenomenon that one of the hottest bedroom innovations is adjustable position beds, which are best described as a mashup of a La-Z-boy and hospital bed.
The same applies if you wake up from a sound sleep and can't go back to sleep--do not stay in bed, says Walker. Get up and go to another room and take that paperback with you. If you don't want to get out of a cozy warm bed in the middle of the night, Walker suggests trying meditation to calm your brain. I used to do this with my kids when they were little and couldn't fall asleep. It worked so well that I was usually out before they were.
5. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine
Yeah, this is the most popular one--"Nightcap, anyone?" Alcohol may seem to help you get to sleep, but it does not promote deep sleep. It sedates you and blocks REM or dream sleep, the most important part of the sleep cycle. Caffeine, a stimulant, also inhibits deep sleep. So, even if you're like me and don't feel you're bothered by a coffee after dinner, the sleep you get will leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Spurring a few cups of coffee to get you started, and that only creates a vicious cycle.
All of this may seem like pretty simple stuff but it takes discipline to be your own enforcer of these habits. My suggestion is to set aside a week during which you make a concerted effort to try these five habits. See how it feels, and how you feel.
The benefits are clear and they are many. As Walker tells it, "There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn't optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don't get enough). That we receive such a bounty of health benefits each night should not be surprising."
Oh, and if, after all of this, you still have trouble sleeping, well, maybe you shouldn't be reading this column on your smartphone while propped up in your well-lit bedroom, reclining leisurely in a Tempur-pedic adjustable position bed.