For the past three years, I have served as a “sleep diplomat” to the legal profession. No one appointed me to this position. And I can’t really say it is part of my “official duties.” But the neuroscience literature on the link between sleep and health is stunning. It has been a gamechanger for me, and I am hoping it will be for you as well.
Sleep is the foundation of good health. The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life. Every aspect of our physiology is impacted by sleep. Our cognitive function is severely impaired by lack of sleep, including our memories, creativity, wisdom, and emotional intelligence. Sleep disruption contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The leading causes of disease and death in the industrialized world are causally linked with lack of sleep—including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
We need 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After 16 hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. We cannot catch up on our sleep later. The brain does not work like a bank. The brain can never recover the sleep it has missed. Sleeping even seven hours per day for 10 days makes the brain just as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours.
- Stick to a sleep schedule and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Sleep in a dark, cool (65 to 67 degrees), gadget-free bedroom. Take a hot bath before bedtime, which will help you relax and drop your core body temperature.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, which are sleep disruptors.
- Avoid medications that interfere with sleep, if possible. Sleeping pills are a sedative and do not induce natural sleep.
- Try to exercise no later than two to three hours before your bedtime.
- Late at night, avoid large meals and beverages, which can interfere with sleep.
- A nap as short as 20 minutes can offer a memory consolidation advantage. Don’t take naps after 3:00 p.m. because it makes it harder to fall asleep at night.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and leave your bedroom and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. This will help reduce any association your brain makes between wakefulness and your bedroom.
- Consider “sleep divorce.” If your partner snores loudly or keeps you up at night, consider sleeping in a separate bedroom. If you are worried about decreased opportunities for intimacy, sleep enhances interest in intimacy as well as reproductive capabilities.
- LED lights wind back our internal 24-hour clock by two to three hours, on average. Using LED devices at night such as iPads, phones, and computers disrupts our natural sleep rhythms and hurts the quality and quantity of our sleep.
- Learn more about sleep, performance, and well-being by reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep.