Two-thirds of adults in developed countries fail to sleep the recommended nightly eight hours, according to the World Health Organization. The consequences can’t be overstated; is there a more essential fulcrum to our health and happiness? Even sleeping six to seven hours compromises our immune system, doubling the risk of cancer. Sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and shorter life expectancy — not to mention decreased productivity (insufficient sleep costs the U.S. 2% of its GDP annually).
When we don’t practice good sleep habits, we put others at risk, too. Accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. In his bestselling book Why We Sleep, sleep scientist Dr. Matthew Walker outlines why good sleep is the most critical thing we can do for ourselves — and how we can get more of it.
But first: If you’re one of the 20 percent of Americans who suffer from a long-term, clinical sleep disorder, please consult your doctor immediately. For the majority of us who have the ability to sleep more but are still sleep deprived, there are, thankfully, ways we can control our sleep hygiene.
Caffeine is one of the biggest culprits behind sleep deprivation. It actively blocks our adenosine receptors, suppressing the signals that communicate tiredness with our brain. The half-life of caffeine is five to seven hours. So if you have a coffee, an energy drink, or chocolate after 5 pm, the effects of caffeine can still be active, and inhibiting your sleep, until midnight.
The effects get more extreme as we age. Says Dr. Walker, “The older we are, the longer it takes our brain and body to remove caffeine, and thus the more sensitive we become in later life to caffeine's sleep-disrupting influence.”
Artificial evening light delays the release of melatonin. That’s the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, so lights make it much harder for us to fall asleep. According to Dr. Walker, just 8 to 10 lux, the power of a dim bedside lamp, has been shown to delay the release of melatonin. Blue light communicates daytime to our brains, so we are especially sensitive to LEDs, smartphones, and tablets. Considering 90 percent of individuals use a portable device 60 minutes or less before they go to bed, late-night screen time is one of the most damaging things we do for our health.
In fact, a study found that using an iPad for two hours before bed limited melatonin levels by 23 percent. Another study discovered that compared to reading a book in print, reading on an iPad blocked melatonin release by over 50 percent, and delayed its rise for up to three hours.
Dr. Walker suggests dimming all lights in the evening and using blackout curtains to maintain complete darkness during the night. If you can’t live without using your devices before bed, install software that gradually diminishes the blue LED lights they emit.
How long should you nap? The National Sleep Foundation recommends a 20 to 30 minute nap to increase short term alertness and performance. But keep in mind that taking a nap too late in the day can affect how easily you fall asleep later that night.
Napping is biologically ingrained. Biphasic sleep, with one long phase of rest followed by an early-afternoon nap when we experience an “evolutionary imprinted lull in wakefulness,” as Dr. Walker puts it, “reflects an innate drive to be asleep and napping in the afternoon.” In a study of 23,000 Greek adults whose culture abandoned regular siesta at the turn of the millenium, the mortality risk of not napping increased over 60 percent.
So nap if you can, but limit it to early afternoons and for only 20 to 30 minutes.
You know the idiom about marching to the beat of your own drum? Well, when it comes to sleep, the maxim is essential. Everybody’s circadian rhythm is a little different.
We all have a perpetual 24-hour biological clock, but each of our circadian rhythms is unique, as determined by our DNA, with varying peaks and troughs. About 40 percent of us are morning people, 30 percent evening people, and everyone else is somewhere in between, says Dr. Walker.
It’s important to listen to what your body is telling you about when and how long it wants to sleep. A night owl is hardwired to want to fall asleep later and sleep in later in the morning. Though some life and work schedules don’t accommodate this, Dr. Walker recommends establishing a regular bedtime and waking time, even on the weekends, based on our individual needs. The routine can help us fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed.
Alcohol is a sedative. It does not induce natural sleep — it acts more like a light anesthesia. (Speaking of sedatives, Dr. Walker does not recommend sleeping pills, which he says are addictive and do not provide natural sleep, can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening diseases.) Alcohol fragments our sleep, adding many brief awakenings, so alcohol-infused sleep is not restorative. It’s also, according to Dr. Walker, one of the strongest suppressors of REM sleep we know.
“People consuming even moderate amounts of alcohol in the afternoon and/or evening are thus depriving themselves of dream sleep,” he says. REM sleep is critical in memory integration and association, creativity, and complex emotional processing.
According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., the medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, people who exercise at least 30 minutes a day may enjoy a better quality sleep that same night.
Moderate aerobic exercise helps increase the amount of slow wave sleep — the deep sleep that happens when the brain and body are rejuvenating. Of course, exercise also helps stabilize moods and settle the mind, which Gamaldo says is essential to transitioning to sleep.
Dr. Walker invokes a study of insomniacs that found that in a four month period of increased physical activity, the subjects slept on average an hour more a night. One caution: don’t exercise an hour or two before bed, as it can be difficult to drop your body temperature after exertion.
Our nighttime melatonin levels are controlled not just by the loss of daylight, but also by the drop in temperature at dusk. To successfully fall asleep, your core temperature has to decrease by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit, says Dr. Walker. That’s why it’s always hard to fall asleep in a room that is too hot. Dr. Walker recommends dropping your bedroom temperature 3-5 degrees, or to 65 degrees.
“Ambient room temperature, bedding, and nightclothes dictate the thermal envelope that wraps around your body at night,” writes Dr. Walker. “...This is perhaps the most underappreciated factor determining the ease with which you will fall asleep tonight, and the quality of sleep you will obtain.”
That’s one reason we make our Avocado Green Mattress with organic, breathable, and temperature-regulating materials that help keep you cool and in a deep sleep.
Mattresses get worn out. They sag, get lumpy, and generally lose their shape and functionality. The result is that your body might not be getting the support it needs for a thorough night’s rest. A typical mattress should be replaced after seven years of regular use. Our Avocado mattresses come with a 1-year risk-free trial and a 25-year warranty — so you can make sure you have the right mattress to help you sleep well. Given how critical sleep is to our physical and mental health, a mattress that supports quality sleep is one of the best investments you can make.
That’s one reason we make our mattresses with organic, natural materials. Most mattresses are full of chemicals that can pollute your home and harm your body, including harsh volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause serious health problems. Our mattresses are GREENGUARD Gold, GOTS, and GOLS certified. That’s because we use certified organic cotton, certified organic natural latex from a farm we co-own, and certified organic wool from sheep who roam on our organic pastures. That ensures our mattresses are free from any nasty chemicals that can prevent a safe, sound sleep for you and your family.
Like mattresses, pillows lose their punch. Memory foam, feather, and polyfill pillows are usually too soft to be effective for very long because of their plushness and tendency to compact very quickly. Latex pillows offer that same cloud-like feeling of memory foam, with a bit more firmness and stability.
If you’re a side-sleeper in particular, it’s incredibly important to make sure your neck and spine are in alignment when you sleep. For that, you need firm, fluffy pillows. Give yours a good shuffling, or, if they’re too far gone, recycle your old ones and invest in some new organic pillows that are made from safe, natural materials and are firm enough to support your neck properly. Learn more from our in-depth pillow guide.