Do you fall asleep while sitting in a waiting room, bored without any outside stimulus? Do you tend to nod off on long drives or while watching movies? Do you need an alarm in the morning to wake you up? These are three common signs that you could be sleep deprived. And just because you’ve slept 8 hours or went to bed at the right time doesn’t mean you’re not failing to meet your body’s sleeping requirements. In this post, I’ll be discussing the four pillars of sleep and how you can optimize each one for the best sleep of your life.
The Four Pillars
After hours and hours of research through books, podcasts, articles and videos, I agree with Dr. Matthew Walker that there are four main pillars of sleep. Duration, continuity, regularity, and quality. And the degradation of any one of these four pillars can have a very adverse effect on your sleep and quality of life. And for most people, sleep is usually correlated to how much energy you have in the day or how alert you feel. But, sleep is far more important and wide ranging than just that. Here are a few statements made or supported by Dr. Matthew Walker who is a professor at UC Berkeley and founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science.
- “The most reliable thing we see when we deprive people of sleep of any dose – anxiety goes up.”
- When you’re sleep deprived, you are less apt to associate with other people. And, people are less likely to engage/interact with you when you’re sleep deprived due to a collection of things (appearance, vocal tone, etc). These two things caused by sleep deprivation can trigger viral loneliness.
- “It’s almost like sleep deprivation served to shut down your memory inbox and any new incoming files were being bounced.”
- In one study, the sleep deprived group was 40% more deficient in their learning ability.
- Deep sleep is about knowledge – gathering information and holding on to it.
- REM sleep is about wisdom – knowing what it all means when you fit it together.
- It’s always been documented that sleep disturbance goes hand in hand with psychiatric disturbance.
- Insufficient sleep is one of the most significant lifestyle factors that contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.
- If you typically get less than 6 hours of sleep a night, your risk for a variety of cancers (bowel, prostate, breast, and more) increases.
Clearly, sleep serves many other functions than just energy and alertness. Sleep not only helps with immunity like preventing Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, but sleep largely affects your personality on a day-to-day basis too. With a lack of sleep, you also tend to be less empathetic, less understanding of other people’s emotions, and more anxious. So, how do we optimize our sleep to improve our quality of life? By focusing on the four main pillars.
The most obvious pillar of sleep is duration. Many experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep per day. With that being said, more and more studies are showing that the optimal amount of sleep may be at least 8 hours, or closer to 9. While I would tend to agree that around 8.5 hours of sleep is ideal for me, I have my sleep schedule setup for 7.5 hours per night because there’s just too many things I want to complete in a workday while I’m awake. You’ll have to figure out how much sleep your body needs and adjust your schedule accordingly. I recommend doing this by performing a two week sleep duration test on yourself.
Sleep Duration Test
Go to bed at the same time every night for 14 days. Don’t ever set your alarm. Once you wake up naturally, record the number of hours you slept. And, before you go back to bed that night, record how you felt during the day using a 1-3 scale (1 – not great, 2 – average, 3 – great). After two weeks, you should have data similar to this:
Then you can use that data to help gauge how much sleep is appropriate for yourself. I’d recommend looking at the last seven days of the test since your body may be adjusting to the new routine for the first seven days. From the data, try to view trends about how much sleep your body needs. From the data above, I can see that the great (3) feeling was usually perceived upon at least 7.5 hours of sleep. I can see that a not great (1) or average (2) feeling was perceived with slightly less hours of sleep. This is good method to determine your sleeping duration needs.
Sleep continuity is the second pillar. This is the act of staying asleep for the entire duration of your sleep. By this I mean that 8 hours of continuous sleep is much more beneficial than sleeping 8 hours within a 9 hour period. This might seem obvious at first, but there’s much more to this topic than that simple statement. Sleep fragmentation, or breaks in your sleep continuity, can and do occur for many reasons. And, we rarely realize all of the times they occur. For example, the following factors can affect our sleep continuity:
- Consumption of alcohol, THC, and even prescribed sleeping medications will cause us to fall asleep quicker, but prevent us from getting into and staying in a deep sleep state. So, while many people falsely believe alcohol, THC and sleeping medications are helping them sleep, they’re really only helping them fall asleep quicker and then degrading their sleep continuity for the rest of the night.
- Consumption of caffeine will also cause sleep fragmentation. Most people don’t know that the quarter-life of caffeine is 12 hours. That means that if you consumed caffeine at noon, a quarter of the caffeine is still in your body at midnight. This caffeine can cause sleep fragmentation.
- External factors like light, noise and temperature can also disrupt sleep continuity. Lights and noise from cars passing by will turn your brain’s alert system on to determine whether or not we are in danger. If not, the alert system deactivates and we go back into deeper sleep. Extreme external temperature’s may make it difficult for your body to reduce it’s core temperature to the appropriate level too.
All of these factors disrupt our sleep continuity, and the worst part is it’s extremely hard for us to recognize it. Most of the time we don’t fully wake up. So, we don’t consciously know or remember every time that one of these factors has caused sleep fragmentation. That can make it difficult to correct the issue since most of us are unaware of it. It’s only when monitoring sleep patterns in a lab, that you can really track the significantly decreased quality of sleep caused by these external factors.
And, since many of us don’t have the resources to test our sleep continuity in a lab, I recommend proactively addressing the bulleted items above. Don’t consume alcohol or THC ever. Avoid sleeping medications and treat the issue’s source if possible. If consuming caffeine, try to stick to one cup per day in the morning. Lastly, try to limit the amount of light and noise in your bedroom. I’ve done this with blackout, soundproof curtains. And keep your bedroom temperature between 63 and 66 degrees. You can do this with any programmable thermostat (my recommendation). Doing all of these things will help decrease sleep fragmentation and increase your sleep continuity.
The third pillar is sleep regularity. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday. That means skipping the late Friday nights out on the town, and avoiding sleeping in on the weekends. This is because our body has an inner clock that tells us when to fall asleep and when to wake up. Our body prepares to sleep for those times by producing hormones like melatonin and if those times are shifted, our hormonal balance is off and we can skip vital stages of our sleep cycle. Therefore, I recommend doing two things.
One, determine when it’s best for you to fall asleep. Approximately, 30% of people are night owls, 30% are morning people, and 40% are somewhere in the middle. If you’re a night owl, you tend to feel better by going to sleep later. But, even a night owl shouldn’t go to sleep after midnight. And if you’re a morning person, you tend to feel better by going to sleep earlier. But, even a morning person shouldn’t go to sleep before 9 PM. So, figure out which type of person you are to help determine when you should go to sleep. For me, I’m one of those people that fall in the “somewhere in the middle” category so I like to fall asleep around 10:30 PM.
Second, use your results from the sleep duration test to determine when you should wake up. Like I said, my sleep duration tends to be about 7.5 hours. Therefore, if I’m going to bed at 10:30 PM, I should be waking up at 6 AM every morning to hit my sleep duration goal.
With these two steps, you can setup your sleep schedule and increase your sleep regularity.
The last pillar of sleep is the quality or depth of your sleep. And to really understand this, I recommend listening to the podcast linked in the sources below but my understanding is that while you sleep, your brain does many things like produce varying brain wave oscillations from slow sleep to sleep spindles and k-complexes. The depth of these oscillations and quality of the coordination between these brain wave oscillations is what determines your sleep quality.
And as you age, your sleep quality/depth naturally decreases. For example, by the time you’re 50 years old, you’re getting only about 50% of the deep sleep you got when you were in your teens. By the time you’re 70, it’s only about 5%. And, after you turn 80, you’re hardly getting any.
That’s why it’s important to do what you can to increase the quality or depth of your sleep. You can do this by optimizing the first three pillars above. If you focus on sleep duration, regularity, and continuity then these factors will help you increase the quality or depth of your sleep. There’s also lots of research being performed on understanding the brain wave oscillations, and finding procedures for increasing the quality/depth of your sleep even as you age through timed noise or brain stimulation.
Sleep does a whole lot more than just make you feel energetic and alert. It aids in immunity by fighting against Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. It acts as a file transfer to move short term memories to long term storage. It propels you to be social and interact with others. It decreases your anxiety and significantly improves your ability to learn. Sleep is so powerful and it not only affects your future, but it affects how you live day-to-day.
So, let’s get sleep right. First, determine what time is the best time for you to go to bed. Second, find the optimal amount of time you should be sleeping. Third, setup a sleep schedule. And lastly, avoid substances and external stimuli before and during sleep. All of this will help you optimize your sleep duration, regularity, continuity, and quality.
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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe
Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient and effective. I do this by covering topics like Cognitive Health, Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.
- Sleep is Your Superpower
- Dr. Matthew Walker on Sleep for Enhancing Learning, Creativity, Immunity, and Glymphatic System
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
- FoundMyFitness Podcast Notes
- Matthew Walker (scientist)
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