Sleep Is More About Quality Than Quantity

by Amit Sodha

in Health

Baby Asleep

You cannot open a news website health section now without there one story or another regarding sleep.

Apparently, sleeping less is out, and ample sleep is the new black! :lol:

Some examples:

The BBC reported recently about how bad sleep can alter the body’s chemistry: – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21572686

In the Daily Mail, the importance of napping: – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2650232/Bosses-let-workers-naps-says-sleep-expert-Professor-says-30-90-minutes-brain-downtime-day-increase-productivity.html

I always take articles like these, and other ones on health, with a relatively large pinch of salt because often the research only looks at small groups and the results are rarely conclusive.

Before I go any further, I’m going to warn you now, this is going to be a biggie, so sit back and enjoy the ride!

I consider myself somewhat of a sleep expert. Actually, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the effects of lack of sleep. I’ve been doing it for long enough to know what it means to me and I wanted to share some of my insights on the subject of sleep.

I’ve written twice in the past about sleep and both those articles were from a few years ago.

My first article was about waking naturally. The second was about sleeping less. In both cases, I still stand by most of what I said and am going to add some more information based on what I’ve learned since them, to clarify and address some of the points in the articles above.

Firstly, have you noticed how sometimes you might sleep just a few hours and feel refreshed? Have you also noticed how sometimes, you can have a long lie-in on the weekend and wake up groggy, and feel tired for the rest of the day?

Have you thought about why that is? Keep reading to find out more about why I think that is and what you can do to get more of those.

My Sleep History

I’m a late sleeper. I always have been and I always will be. Ever since restarting a 9-5 job 2 years ago, I’ve struggled with sleep. I’ve never seen the need for a fixed starting time and my views are unlikely to change, especially with the flexibility that technology brings. (I am of course referring to office workers. I know with some jobs you can’t escape a fixed schedule.)

In the beginning, I was sometimes only getting about one hour of sleep a night, two or three nights in a row. It got to the point where I was so exhausted, I had no choice but to go to a park at lunchtime and get some sleep as my body just could not cope; I could not function at all. I had to make best use of the weekends to catch up on some ZZZZs.

In late 2013, the problem was so bad, I ended up in hospital with severe heart palpitations. I knew the culprit was sleep, and after that I incident I made some changes and spent a few weeks recovering by getting more sleep.

I have gone through various experimental phases in my life where I have gone to bed early and woken up early. In 1998 for a whole year I went to bed before 10pm and woke up at around 3.45am. I would then spend the first hour of my day in meditation.

After that, in the early naughties, I was working a 9-5 but ended up in a routine of having many late nights and waking up early then to go to work. It continued for a long time.

In 2008 for the first 3 months of that year. I would wake up at 5am every day, go for a long walk and meditate.

Nowadays I tend to sleep after midnight. Only if I’m thoroughly exhausted can I sleep before that. I’m usually up by around 7am meaning I have under 7 hours of sleep a night.

Alarm Clocks

My biggest problem with fixed working hours is the issue of using some kind of alarm to wake up to. Using any kind of sound to suddenly wake yourself, I personally believe, does more damage to us than say, a lack of sleep.

I think it’s unnatural and totally unnecessary. I have to be at the office at 9 and there really isn’t any need for me to be. If I fall asleep at 1am, and my alarms is set for 7am, that means I’m setting I’m only getting around 5 – 6 hours of sleep and then being jarred out of my sleep when my body isn’t ready.

I believe waking up naturally will do so much to benefit your overall health and well-being.

Waking Up Early

There are some people who obsess about being an early riser. It’s a great habit to have but not a practical one.

I know there a personal development guru’s who swear by it and say it’s a key part of what they do. As much as I like the idea of waking up early, I don’t think it’s for me and I don’t believe it’s absolutely crucial to well-being to wake up early every single day.

My life is such that I can’t wake up at the same time every day. Some days I may go out with friends and we’ll be out until late. Then waking up early becomes a chore. I can’t wake up at 5am if I’ve been out with friends and get back home at 2am. it’s just not going to happen.

My life just doesn’t have enough of a fixed routine for me to able to go to bed early every single day and wake up early too.

Sleep Patterns

I use the sleep cycle app and I’ve been using it for some time. Often, during the week, I average around 4 – 5 hours of sleep. Sometimes I have a short nap in the evenings, but it’s rare.

The sleep cycle app is great as it gives you readouts on the quality of sleep you’ve had over a particular night or over a period of time.

It wakes you up gently in the your lightest phase of sleep and so you’re not jarred out of a deep stint.

The sleep cycle app has been great as it’s showing me crucially, how long I’ve been sleeping, as opposed to how long I’ve been in bed, and there is a big difference.

There are people out there who have the ability to fall asleep instantly after their head has hit the pillow. I wish I was one of those people. I have those nights on occasion, but more often than not it takes me about 30 minutes on a good night to fall asleep; a few hours at worst.

If I ever go through a period whereby I find it difficult to sleep for whatever reason, I often find that coffee helps me sleep better (to throw a spanner in the works of those who say you shouldn’t drink caffeine at night).

My entire life, I’ve always found that a cup of coffee in the evening actually helps me sleep. There are numerous theories about why this for works for some people. My theory is simply that it helps to relax, eases tensions; and therefore helps people sleep more soundly.

A single cup of mild coffee also, in my opinion, won’t affect the quality of sleep. Any caffeine effects will be negated by the relaxing effect it can have.

Wwhat the sleep cycle app has shown me is that quality does matter and makes a huge difference.

Caveats

There is big drawback to sleeping less, and frequently, and that is compensation. If you’re tired, you may, consciously or unconsciously, eat more sugar to compensate for the lack of energy. That is a perfectly natural response to tiredness but the danger is when reaching for things that may not be so good for us like biscuits, coffee loaded with sugar, and crisps/chips.

I think that is part of the problem about gaining weight and the increase in probability of becoming obese or diabetic; i.e., the poor diet choices through tiredness.

I will also say then when I poorly or too little, less than 5 hours, I gain weight quickly and retain it. When I sleep more and have good quality sleep, about 6.5 hours, the weight tends to fall off quickly.

Other than feeling tired, I’m not so sure I agree with the experts that the lack of sleep will cause long term damage. I’ve always felt like that so long as I catch up with sleep, I feel fine. Even the episode of heart palpitations I had last year, was only temporary and went away after I started getting a little more sleep.

However, if it becomes excessively longer term, then just like eating a bad diet over a long period of time, the effects will begin to show. But if you change and improve your sleep, just like improving your diet, I believe you can reverse an ill effects.

Quality over Quantity

One of the most important things the researchers in the articles don’t mention was about quality of sleep. A simple app like Sleep-cycle can give you an indicator of the kind of sleep you get. I’m a big believer that the quality is as important, if not more important, that the amount of sleep you get.

I mentioned earlier about the times when you can sleep less and feel better, or sleep more and feel like crap. People have often chalked this down to waking up in the lightest phase of sleep in our 90 minute cycles and results from the sleep cycle app would concur with that.

I believe it’s more about the overall quality. When I’ve had less sleep, but I’ve slept well, I feel like I’ve had a proper nights sleep.

Scaremongering

There was another article on the BBC recently regarding light pollution in bedrooms. I have to confess, my personal experience has been that it generally has no bearing on sleep at all.

Articles like these, in my opinion, don’t really do much other than scaremonger.

There have been times when I’ve found it difficult to sleep, an so, I’ll put a movie on in the background. Whether there is an effect of the light pollution or not, what it essentially did was distract me from ‘trying’ to sleep when I was already struggling, to not thinking about it and falling asleep more naturally.

Therein lies the important part. I chose the lesser of two evils and probably with little, if any, side effects.

How Much Sleep?

Here’s my take on this subject. I think we’re all different and I think we’re all wired differently. Over the years, my optimum sleep has always been around 6.5 hours of high quality sleep. Any more than that and I feel lethargic, any less, and over a few days the lack of sleep will catch up with me.

The quality of sleep is important.

Find out what your optimum is and work around that. You can use an app or you just can go to sleep and wake up naturally, and see how long you slept over that period.

Tricking Yourself

I did an experiment recently. My partner was always concerned that I wasn’t sleeping enough. So over the period of a month, I never once mentioned if I had a bad nights sleep, I just told her that every night I was sleeping like a baby. An you know what? Over that month, I started sleeping like a baby. Unconsciously I started sleeping better and going to bed earlier.

I didn’t even realise it until I looked over my sleep cycle app and discovered that I was sleeping more and I actually felt better. I was sleeping my optimum of around 6.5 hours and I was in a deep sleep throughout the entire night.

I mention this for a very important reason, and that is reinforcement.

If you keep telling yourself and other people that you’re not sleeping well, I believe you make it work and reinforce that pattern of behaviour. It applies to all areas of our lives and sleep is no exception. If you keep repeating it over and over again and you keep telling people about it, your situation will not change.

What Should Change?

  • Firstly I don’t think you need 7 hours sleep, I think you need the amount of sleep that YOU need. We need more sleep when we’re younger, and less as we get older. You may need less sleep than I, or more, but we’re all unique so find out what works for you and do that. Listen to your body and do an experiment to see how much you sleep naturally without an alarm to wake you up.
  • I think the idea of a 9-5 is totally outdated and needs to go. Now, I totally understand that there are some industries where schedules are needed, but I believe there are many where it is just an outdated idea. I think in a day an age of so much technology and the fact that we operate with people all over globe in different time zones, we need flexibility. We have everything we need to work from home or anywhere. We shouldn’t ever have to rush for trains or have to be in an office at a specific time.
  • I believe that you should not be penalised, nor should it be seen as a weakness if you need to nap during the day and it should be allowed at the workplace, just like Google have those napping booths. If I’m tired, I am less productive, and more likely to make mistakes in tasks that require accuracy. A nap would make all the difference in the world and would really help. I believe I would function much better and be more productive.
  • I think as human beings we don’t just work on a single chunk of sleep at night, I believe that we are biphasic and it feels natural to have a nap or siesta.

Tips for better quality sleep

I’m not a huge believer in hard and fast rules that apply to all. Look at what works for you and keep doing more of that.

  1. If you end up in a place where you’re ‘trying’ to sleep, unsuccessfully, distract yourself. Watch your favorite move; read a book; or try this – try and stay awake! use a little paradoxical intention to make things easier.
  2. Stop telling people about your sleep woes just for one week. If anyone asks – Lie! See if you spot a difference. I helped me a lot, try and see if it works for you.
  3. Find out what options you have to get some flexibility in your life. See if there’s anyway you can change your routine so that you can wake up naturally, without a fixed time and most importantly, without an alarm.
  4. If the above isn’t an option, do it as when you can instead, like on the weekends, you’ll feel so much better afterwards
  5. See if there’s a way you can bring in napping as an option. You will find, that the time used napping, will be made up for quickly, in your increase in productivity.

IF ALL ELSE FAILS – JUST READ THIS LONG-ASS ARTICLE…THAT SHOULD PUT YOU TO SLEEP FOR A LONG TIME! :lol:

Lastly don’t buy into all these articles, experiment on yourself and see what works for you!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ali

Wow, you have thought about it a lot. Our sleeping patterns are very similar. I sleep about 6 – 6.5 hour everyday and generally have a habit of waking up around 7 am. One thing I am proud is that I have a mental clock. I can wake up about any hour I need to get up. If I set up an alarm clock I wake before it rings.

I feel as we get older we need less and less sleep. It has been years I haven’t slept 8 hours. Even I am very tried I get up after 7 hours. The only difference is that I sleep like a log when I am tired but sleep lightly when I am not. I agree with you on coffee. I never felt it affected my sleep. Many times, I drunk a lot of coffee to avoid sleepiness but never worked. Unless you have some sort of sleeping disorder you should worry about sleeping 5 or 8 hours a day, I think.

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2 Amit Sodha

Hey Ali,

Thanks so much for your comments, I’ll respond more fully soon! :-D

~Amit

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3 Chris

Very analytical post!

I believe sleep, and downtime is vital for our health and well-being. I know some celebrities have boasted about only having 4 hours sleep and saying this frees up more available time in the day, but for most of us, doing just 4 hours night in, night out, will leave us tired and dreary in the daytime. Even the day after one night of just 4 hours I feel quite rough, and need to catch up on sleep either in a daytime nap or the following night.

Like you I don’t see what virtue there is in being an ‘early riser.’ Why’s it some better to sleep 9pm to 5am, than it is 2am to 10am? It’s the same hours either way.

One thing I cannot live without is a radio alarm, talk radio which allows you to ease your way out of sleep over a course of an hour or so if necessary, while stretching your legs in bed as you prepare to get up.

One more point, as teenager’s bodies are typically conditioned to late nights/ late mornings, we ought to forward the school day from 9am-3pm to something like 11am-5pm. Seriously, teens need those vital last hours of sleep, getting up later once their bodies have woken up allow them to function properly and learn more effectively.

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4 Amit Sodha

Hi Chris,

Thank you so much for the comment and feedback – I’m going to respond more in depth soon!

~Amit

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5 Joshua Tilghman

Amit,

Thanks for the detailed post. My grandfather is a doctor who has averaged around 4 hours a sleep since starting his practice. He’s 75 now and in great shape, always energetic, and never seems tired. It just goes to show that we really are all wired differently. My wife can’t function unless she’s had at least 7-8 hours. She’s the type that can go to bed at 9 or 10 and fall asleep in 5 min. every time. I have to read.

Reply

6 Amit Sodha

Hey Joshua,

Thanks so much for your comment and it’s very interesting to hear about your grandfather and how much sleep he gets, and that he’s a doctor.

I wish I could just fall asleep in the same way your wife does…wow to be able to just nod off at will. :-D

Thanks again,

~Amit

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