You don't need eight hours of sleep

May 13, 2020

I’ve always had difficulty sleeping. For years, I would spend hours lying awake at night, wondering how I could possibly feel so alert when I knew how tired I really was.

The quality of my sleep varied from month to month. Occasionally, during the months when I was travelling or exercising more than usual, sleep would come naturally and I barely thought about it. When I returned to school, however, my sleep would slowly degrade to the point where I would feel perpetually sluggish, ill, and unhappy.

Naturally, the more sleep I lost, the more time I gave myself in bed. I retired no later than 10:00 pm, allowing myself eight hours of rest before my alarm the next morning. That rest never came, however, and I would lay there in bed for hours waiting for the sun to rise. Frustrated at my brain’s inability to power off, I became reliant on a colourful array of over-the-counter medications, mostly low-dose melatonin (which, surprisingly, is far more potent than the standard dosage). Their effect, I knew, was mostly psychological and ultimately damaging, but they gave me peace of mind and allowed me to fall asleep faster than I ever had before. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that this was not sustainable.

The Solution

In April, I embarked on a mission to understand the root of my sleep troubles, and have come away with two key lessons which have dramatically improved the quality of my sleep.

  1. Make your room pitch black, and soundproof. This seems obvious, but its importance is often understated. My university dorm lacked in exactly two ways: It had a terrible colour scheme, and it was neither dark nor silent. The light from the hallway and sporadic ululations of my neighbours significantly detracted from my sleep quality, and it was only when I moved back home to my dark and quiet room that I noticed the improvement.

  2. The reason you can’t fall asleep is that you’re not sleepy. Everybody sleeps. Like food, like water, and like oxygen, your body demands sleep, and the longer you stay awake, the sleepier you get. Eventually, no matter how many coffees you’ve drunk, or how anxious your are about the next day, your will sleep, because it’s outside your control—you depend on sleep to survive.

You might ask: “If my body sleeps when it needs to, and the longer I stay awake the sleepier I get, then why can I go to bed completely wrecked from my tap dancing class and find myself completely unable to fall into the profound slumber that I so desire?”. The answer is simple: you’re misinterpreting fatigue as sleepiness. Broadly, sleepiness is your body’s natural response to changes in its levels of the hormones adenosine, which increases the longer you stay awake, and melatonin, which increases in the evening. The feeling you get after a session of high speed pirouetting, conversely, is fatigue—a lack of energy. It is crucial to understand that while these two sensations are similar, they are not synonymous and should not be confused.

You don’t need eight hours of sleep.

What I came to understand was that my difficulty sleeping was mostly a result of going to bed too early. No one eats dinner earlier when they’re not hungry, yet when I could not sleep I thought only of going to bed on time. Most adults need 6–7 hours per night at most, and sleeping more comes at the cost of reduced sleep quality and a general feeling of lethargy the next day. This is paradoxical, but if you want to improve the quality of your sleep and the way you feel the next day, go to bed later. Now, I typically retire around 11:00 pm, an hour later. Not only does this give me more time in my day to be unproductive, but I fall asleep faster, do not depend on medications, and feel less like a squash the next day. This simple routine has dramatically improved my life.

Most of what I have learned has come from excellent book The Sleep Solution by Dr. Chris Winter, who is both knowledgeable and hilarious. I highly recommend it.

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