Lately it feels like we are inundated with news about the importance of sleep. A few recent headlines include: “losing just 16 minutes of sleep can affect next day’s performance”, “you’re not getting enough sleep and it’s killing you” and even “insomnia can kill you.” When we read headlines like this, it understandably creates fear and stress. Many people don’t get the recommended 8 hours of sleep and then we read that we’re going to die because of it. It’s no wonder so many of us are anxious about our sleep.
It’s true, sleep is important. It helps our body to rest and repair and if we don’t get proper sleep, we can feel the impact. But research shows that not everyone needs 8 or more hours of sleep per night. Some of us do quite well getting six hours or even less. Estimates are that about 1% of the population are what is called “short sleepers” and need less than 6 hours of sleep per night. And there are others who need 9 hours of sleep to feel rested. The point is that sleep needs are individual and varied, not “one size fits all.” When we try to force our body to do something because we are told it’s healthy, we can create stress and resulting insomnia.
It also matters when you sleep according to your internal circadian rhythm. For instance, if you are more of a night owl and you are trying to push yourself to go to sleep by 10pm every night, it may not be the optimal sleep window for your body. The best way to test out what works best for you is to see what happens when you don’t set an alarm for a few weeks. If you are on vacation or if you are able to try this while in your regular routine. See what time your body naturally feels tired and what time you would wake up without any external influences. This questionnaire from the Center for Environmental Therapeutics can also help guide you toward your circadian rhythm type.
Another myth is the idea that we can “catch up” on sleep over the weekend. When we have hectic weekday schedules and demands, we often sleep less during the week and then sleep in on the weekend. This actually makes things worse. By varying your bedtimes and wake times, your body gets confused about when it should be sleeping. And sleeping more on the weekends reduces your sleep drive. Have you ever had the experience of sleeping in on a Sunday and then not being able to fall asleep on Sunday night? This is due to reduced sleep drive. In fact, it’s best to get up close to the same time every day, no matter when you go to sleep.
Although messages in the media about sleep are everywhere, try not to let them impact how you feel about your sleep. The more stress you put on yourself to sleep, the worse your sleep will be. And spending time in bed trying to sleep is one of the worst things you can do. Try to relax about your sleep, if you can. Your body is more likely to be able to do what it needs to do when we aren’t hyper-focused on what we’re not doing. And if sleep is a big problem for you, consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) to help you get back on track.