Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
Are you a victim of sleep debt? If changing just one of your daily habits was enough to make you more alert, efficient, energetic, productive and motivated, would you implement that change? The negative impact of sleep debt is summarized here . Here’s what you can do about it:
Easy Steps for Sleep Debtors
If you are sleep deprived, I know that any effortful lifestyle change has next to no chance of being successfully implemented. So I’ll keep my recommendations simple and achievable:
1- Rethink your relationship to sleep. Recognize that sufficient shut-eye time is part of the solution. Playing “tough guy” is unproductive. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get away with 6 hours of sleep – unless you are an anomaly, you can’t. (As I wrote here,in a 2-week study, getting under 7 hours of sleep each day made people three times more likely to get sick after exposure to a cold virus).
2- Go to bed and get up at regular hours. Your body will get used to the regularity of your routine and will make it easier for you to fall asleep and awaken. If you are working shifts, adopt a very organized bedtime regimen. Your brain will pick up the clues and by the time you are opening the bed sheets, sleepiness will start settling in.
3- Cut back on the caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, and therefore impedes sleep. It takes up to 7 hours before your cup of java has completely left your bloodstream. Start by reducing your afternoon and night-time caffeine intake and keep cutting back until you are happy with one or two morning cups.
4- Be enlightened – or not! Your brain interprets light as a signal guiding your biological clock. The more light exposure you get at night, the more you are delaying the onset of sleepiness. The flickering light of your TV is included here too. And by the way, plenty of research shows that TV watching is associated with slightly depressive states, overeating, obesity, chronic sleep debt and lack of physical and sexual activity – viewers, be warned!
5- Get comfy! In order to fall asleep, your brain needs to successfully block out all sensory input. Choosing comfortable pillows, comforters, mattress, bedtime attire and minimizing noise will help you do that. This may sound like obvious advice, but if you are in awe at how comfortable a certain hotel bed was during your last trip, your set-up at home might need revision.
6- Learn how your body functions. Keep a sleep diary for a few days or weeks. What precedes your insomnia? When do you wake up too early and can’t pass back out? When are you most rested? After a few days you’ll see patterns emerge, which will help you maintain good sleep hygiene.
Making the Most of Your Biological Clock
Once your sleep patterns are back on track, try to organize your schedule such that moments of sleepiness and alertness are maximized. For example, I used to try to get all the quick and easy things out of my way so I could focus on more substantial pieces afterwards. After paying attention to how my rhythm of alertness works, I realized that I usually feel most alert between 10 and 12 in the morning, so I reserve that time for what demands the most concentration. I usually hit a drop of energy around 3 or 4, so I now use this time to return emails, run to the post office or do other things that require minimal effort. The result? My productivity has increased – and so did my work satisfaction.
I hope to have convinced you that the idea to frequently stay up late “to get more done” is deceiving and that sleep time is actually productive time. When it comes to beauty sleep, the real beauty isn’t related to the absence of wrinkles and dark circles, but to the splendor of optimal human performance.
Purchased for the purpose of this article.
Baumeister, R. F., Zell, A. L., & Tice, D. M. (2007). How emotions facilitate and impair self-regulation. In J. J. Gross, (Ed.) Handbook of Emotion Regulation, (pp. 408-426). New York: Guilford Press.
Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House. Quote above from p. 231.
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Imeri, L., Opp, M. (2009). How and why the immune system makes us sleep. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
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