This Sunday night, I’m thinking about sleeping. Sleep can sometimes make me feel like an idiot. It is a natural process that we all need to do to survive. But sometimes it is very hard to do? That doesn’t seem like the way it should be, yet it is, and I know if I slept more my brain would be happier.
It turns out that a lot of us are bad at the act of sleep. One in three adults don’t get the recommended seven hours a night — the number that researchers say is the optimal amount for health and well-being. People who regularly get less than seven are at a higher risk of feeling mental distress and developing physical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
When it comes to mental health, sleep can sometimes feel like it’s taunting you with a closed loop. Sleep deprivation worsens your mental health, and people with mental health problems are more likely to have sleep disorders. And while people often list things like stress and computers as hurdles to their sleep, external factors aren’t the only things you’re dealing with when trying to catch a little shut-eye.
As living organisms, we’re governed by an internal biological clock known as the circadian rhythm. Whether or not you’re naturally a morning or night person is, in part, determined by your genes. In a study released this January, scientists discovered that genes can shift a person’s natural waking time by up to 25 minutes, and that people who naturally fall asleep and wake up earlier are more likely to experience a greater sense of well-being, and are at a lower risk of schizophrenia and depression.
Dr. Andrew Bagshaw is a researcher at the University of Birmingham and co-director of its Center for Human Brain Health. Knowing that having a late preference for sleep puts people at odds with the societal day and is linked to a high risk of poor mental health, Bagshaw and colleagues recently endeavored to see whether they could shift the circadian rhythm of “night owls.”
Four Tips to Get to Sleep Earlier
In a study published this May, Bagshaw and his team proved that they could. After following the guidelines set by the scientists for three months, 22 “night owls” were able to shift their internal rhythms by an average of two hours. These guidelines included:
- Eating breakfast right away.
- Maximizing exposure to natural light during waking hours.
- Avoiding caffeine after 3 p.m., napping after 4 p.m., and eating dinner before 7 p.m.
- Exercising in the morning, not in the afternoon.
In turn, the participants became less tired, less stressed, and less depressed, and their cognitive and physical abilities improved. Baghsaw explained to me that each of these factors — exercise, diet, light exposure, caffeine use — are all important. Being cognizant of their importance can help someone settle into a better routine, which is the foundation of good sleep.
“Your sleep schedule is determined by how asleep you are and your circadian rhythm,” Bagshaw says. “The importance of routine comes from the circadian side, which provides a slow rhythm that controls, among other things, the hormones that help you sleep [like melatonin]. If you have a good schedule, everything becomes aligned, and when you are ready to sleep, so is your body.
“If you are random, the link between when you want to sleep and when your body is ready to sleep is lost.”
Bagshaw also points out that each of these influential factors are pretty simple things that can make quite an impact on people’s lives. I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, it sounds easy to eat breakfast right away or get some more sunlight, but life and work can still get in the way. I feel you, and I’m currently running on six sleepy hours. But let’s be mindful of what can help this week: A good night of sleep today means a better brain tomorrow.
Now Look at This Oddly Satisfying Thing
A week ago, game designer Valentine Bachkarova-Lord posted a now-viral video of a person serenely and effortlessly removing cloves from a head of garlic with a quick knife stab. The video made such an impression that even [The New Yorker](https://www.newyorker.com/culture/kitchen-notes/humanitys-eternal-quest-for-a-better-way-of-peeling-garlic and The Los Angeles Times paid homage. (The New York Times reported the hack doesn’t always work.) I haven’t tried the method yet, but I have watched this video around 20 times and feel better for it.