Too many of us live by the catchphrase, “sleep when you’re dead.” When it feels like there is more to do than the day allows, we surrender our sleep hours and then make up for it by consuming an excessive amount of caffeine the next day. After a few days, we’re so exhausted that we can hardly hold our heads up.
The market is flooded with different kinds of products that try to imitate, and even exceed, the level of alertness that ample sleep time provides: energy drinks, caffeine pills, coffee concentrates, even body wash that claims to deposit caffeine directly into the skin. There seems to be a notion that the greatest downfall of a semi-sleepless night is the next day’s fatigue. But more and more, scientists are finding that sleep disruption is linked to a number of health threats, including obesity, immune system and cardiovascular dysfunction, depression, and an increased risk of cancer.
“Sleep is critical for our cognitive health, and if you want a workforce that is creative and can solve problems, then the brain that has slept will be far superior to the tired brain,” Russell Foster, Ph.D. said in an interview he did as an Oxford medical researcher. Foster has received international acclaim for his discovery of non-rod, non-cone ocular photoreceptors and is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, as well as an Alliance member. Last month, he was featured in another article on the importance of getting a proper night’s sleep in Scientific American magazine.
According to Foster, there are several steps we can take to improve the quality of sleep we get at night. For instance, he says it’s important to “minimize your exposure to light 30 to 60 minutes before bed.” The artificial light—whether it’s coming from a cell phone, TV, or overhead lightbulb—inhibits our brain’s production of melatonin, which is a hormone found naturally in the body that helps us sleep.
Just as our eyes rely on diminished lighting to help us fall asleep, it’s equally important to have exposure to natural light when we wake up. This natural morning light, which Foster calls “the best medicine,” helps resynchronize our circadian rhythm; it gives us a feeling of alertness and stabilizes our body clock for “a proper winding down later in the evening.”
In order to assess how much sleep we actually need, Foster recommends paying attention to sleep patterns on the weekend or during holidays. “If you are dependent upon an alarm clock to get you out of bed; if you take a long time to wake up; if you feel sleepy and irritable during the day; if your behavior is overly impulsive, it means you are probably not getting enough sleep,” he says.
More advice on sleep deprivation is available from the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. Last year, the center addressed sleep deprivation as “an unmet public health problem.” Thanks to scientists like Foster, and other research that is underway worldwide, we now know that the best way to get the most out of your day is to get the right amount of sleep.