Think you can get by with less sleep than other people? You probably can’t. The research tells us that even sleeping 5-6 hours a night starts to affect our performance in almost everything you can think of.
The vast majority of research agrees that we all need between seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. If you only get five hours sleep a night, and you do this for four nights in a row, this actually becomes the equivalent of being awake for 24 hours straight. What does that mean?
Well, in a study by the Harvard Medical School, showed that nurses who were under this level of fatigue were 61% more likely to stab themselves with a needle, and168% more likely to have a car crash on the way home. A lack of sleep affects our judgment, our decision making, our attention and our ability to control emotions and behaviours in a very real way.
If you’re like most people, then you get these symptoms or very similar ones when you have a period where you can’t sleep properly.
- You become moody and find it hard to control emotions
- You are easily frustrated
- You forget things easily
- You feel like eating junk food
- You tend to act on auto pilot - becoming reactive and doing easy things rather than difficult things
Your Brain Can’t Recharge
The biggest thing you need to know is that without sleep, the brain’s Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC) can’t recharge itself properly. If it can’t recharge, then it can’t function for very long, and it runs out of energy to keep working.
The PFC is responsible for controlling emotions. So without sleep, you are easily frustrated and may become moody or ‘snap’ at the drop of a hat. That PFC is also responsible for holding things in short term memory, so forgetting things is pretty much going to be a given. And finally, the PFC is responsible for our top down, goal-based function. So without it functioning at its best, we become reactive, auto-pilot machines, doing the easier thing and finding it very difficult to exert any self-control whatsoever.
First Things First - Aim for 7-8 Hours
We sleep in phases, with the most important phase being ‘Slow Wave” or ‘Restorative Sleep’. Seven or eight hours will allow us to get more restorative sleep phases completed, and also, as we get closer to the six, seven or eight-hour mark, these restorative cycles become longer.
Without the right amount of sleep - even if it’s good quality - you will wake up with your brain’s PFC exhausted and your stress chemicals elevated - and neither of these things are going to help you perform at your best in any area of your life.
Set your body clock
Help your body clock as much as possible. To do this, it’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time at least 6 days a week.
After a while, you will train your ‘wake up’ chemicals to release at the same time every morning, and those sleep cycles start to get organized and form an optimal pattern. Your body and brain knows when it is meant to go to sleep and when it has to wake up, so those sleep cycles become consistent. When your body is confused, your sleep cycles are confused as well. You should no longer need an alarm clock to get out of bed.
Switch Off, Literally: No Screens
If you’re someone who feels they have to work until late at night, then try to disengage for 20 to 30 minutes before you hit the pillow. This gives your brain a chance to shut down. Do something that allows you to disengage mentally from work.
Try turning off anything with a screen at least 30-40 minutes before bedtime. And then engage in some sort of routine to help you hit the pillow in a relaxed state. Screens emit a light frequency that keeps us awake, and more than this, multimedia is designed to stimulate our senses, not relax us.
If you want a better night’s sleep, use at least one of these strategies. If you struggle to get the sleep that you need, then use all of them. You brain (and likely your boss, coworkers and family) will thank you for it.