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Friday, October 12, 2012

Sleep is More Important than Food


Say you decide to go on a fast, and so you effectively starve yourself for a week. At the end of seven days, how would you be feeling? You'd probably be hungry, perhaps a little weak, and almost certainly somewhat thinner. But basically you'd be fine.

Now let's say you deprive yourself of sleep for a week. Not so good. After several days, you'd be almost completely unable to function. That's why Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture.

So why is sleep one of the first things we're willing to sacrifice as the demands in our lives keep rising? We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity and our productivity.

Many of the effects we suffer are invisible. Insufficientsleep, for example, deeply impairs our ability to consolidate and stabilize learning that occurs during the waking day. In other words, it wreaks havoc on our memory.

So how much sleep do you need? When researchers put test subjects in environments without clocks or windows and ask them to sleep any time they feel tired, 95 percent sleep between seven and eight hours out of every 24. Another 2.5 percent sleep more than eight hours. That means just 2.5 percent of us require less than 7 hours of sleep a night to feel fully rested. That's 1 out of every 40 people.

But it’s true that many people had fewer than 7 hours of sleep several nights during a week whether they are corporate executives, teachers, cops or government workers. We've literally lost touch with what it feels like to be fully awake.

Great performers are an exception. Typically, they sleep significantly more than the rest of us. In Anders Ericcson's famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 ½ hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute midafternoon nap some 2 hours a day more than the average American.The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was second most important factor in improving as violinists.

With sufficient sleep, people feel better, work with more focus, and manage their emotions better, which is good for everyone around them.

Here are three other tips to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep:

Go to bed earlier — and at a set time. Sounds obvious right? The problem is there's no alternative. You're already waking up at the latest possible time you think is acceptable. If you don't ritualize a specific bedtime, you'll end up finding ways to stay up later, just the way you do now.

Start winding down at least 45 minutes before you turn out the light. You won't fall asleep if you're all wound up from answering email, or doing other work. Create a ritual around drinking a cup of herbal tea, or listening to music that helps you relax, or reading a dull book.

Write down what's on your mind — especially unfinished to-do's and unresolved issues — just before you go to bed. If you leave items in your working memory, they'll make it harder to fall asleep, and you'll end up ruminating about them if you should wake up during the night.

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