Think 4 hours of sleep is enough? Purdue sleep experts say think again

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WEST LAYFAYETTE, Ind. – Wednesday marks three days since we moved our clocks back and hour. How is your sleep schedule? Sleep experts say our bodies will still adjust for about a week. Something you should do now is make sure you get enough sleep with the time change. If you don’t, it could do more harm than good.

“There are a number of ways in which sleep affects you,” said Elliot Friedman, Ph. D., an associate professor at Purdue University’s Human Development and Family Studies department. “Honestly, when I first started getting into studying sleep, I was told and found that there is nothing that doesn’t effect sleep and nothing that sleep doesn’t effect.”

We hear it often: get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. But be honest, how many of us actually do? A lot of us think it’s impossible, but sleep experts like Friedman say getting quality sleep needs to be a priority.

“If you don’t get enough sleep, even if you miss one night or get part of a night, the next morning your immune system doesn’t look as healthy,” explained Friedman. “You won’t respond as efficiently to a vaccine, there are changes in proteins—immunological proteins and cells that are floating around in your blood in ways that suggest that you may be more vulnerable to infection.”

A.J. Schwichtenberg, Ph. D. also studies the effects of sleep at Purdue University. She gave us a few behavioral suggestions to make sure you get the best sleep for your body.

First, have a set bedtime

“Establish a consistent bedtime, one that you can keep both during the week and on weekends,” said Schwichtenberg. “Roughly, you would like your morning rise times and your bed time not to vary by more than about an hour.”

There’s a reason for this. Schwichtenberg says keeping your body on a sleep schedule also keeps it on a consistent cycle which gives you the most restorative sleep. She recommends planning ahead to make sure you’re getting to bed and waking up at the same time every day.

Next, make sure you have a good bedtime routine

This isn’t something that starts 20 minutes before bed. It actually starts in the afternoon or close to the end of your workday.

For example, don’t work out or drink more caffeine after dinner time.

“If you do moderate to exertive exercise after dinner it can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep later,” said Schwichtenberg. “Reducing caffeine intake, particularly after that afternoon tea. I think for some individuals, they think, ‘I just need that little afternoon bump,’ that’s fine but then reduce your caffeine intake after that.”

Start your calming activity

About 20-30 minutes before bed, that’s when you can start your “calming activity.”

“Successful sleep requires the dampening of several systems – that includes the dampening of arousal, of physical activity or attention,” said Schwichtenberg. “In order to do that transition, you need to be able to dampen those systems and so, you can think of it like an exercise in self-regulation.”

A calming activity can be something like a bath or reading. Some experts say it’s ok to scroll through your phone when you’re trying to fall asleep. Friedman doesn’t recommend it.

“Don’t use electronics in bed, both for the light exposure and because it’s activating—it’s really arousing to be watching television in bed,” said Friedman. “Don’t do anything stimulating.”

And if you think just getting four hours of sleep is good enough, think again.

“There’s no question that not getting an optimal amount of sleep…it will impair your ability to think as efficiently, as optimally,” said Friedman. “It impairs your mood, people are more at-risk for feeling blue, depressed, or easily angered, irritable. There are some studies that show that chronically depriving yourself of sleep puts you at risk for things like obesity, diabetes, depressions.”

“But what’s really interesting is that you also lose the ability to perceive how you’re functioning if you lose sleep,” explained Friedman. “So, you won’t be thinking as clearly but you’ll be thinking you’re thinking just fine. So, you also lose the ability to gauge your own behavior and measure it appropriately.”

Challenges to getting quality sleep

But what about when you work a crazy shift, where you wake up when the sun is down and go to bed when the sun is up?

“The trick for shift work, is finding that alignment between your circadian system and your homeostatic system,” said Schwichtenberg. “The basic premise is that the longer you’re awake, the most your sleep need or your sleep debt or your homeostatic drive builds.”

She gave an example of waking up at 3 a.m.

“[You] are going to want to expose yourself at like 3-7 in the morning, to large amount of natural light—or as much as you can,” said Schwichtenberg. “This idea of that’s when you would, if you were to get up at the start of when sunrise came, when would you have the most exposure to natural light and you want to mimic that as much as possible.”

But there are challenges too for shift workers.

“Sleep also has a circadian cycle which builds off of exposure to light and so, that runs at a roughly a 24-hour cycle with the idea being that when you are exposed to light during the day, it suppresses melatonin—melatonin referred to as the sleep hormone,” explained Schwichtenberg. “Then, once that exposure to light wanes then the breaks are removed and your body can create melatonin, which then starts a lovely cascade which can lead to successful sleep.”

Schwichtenberg says shift workers have to find a way to transition to sleep even though the sun is up to naturally calm their systems. That means making limiting exposure to light at least an hour before bedtime to mimic it being dark outside.

Schwichtenberg also knows that it can be tough to get good sleep when you have a family.

“They get all these various messages around sleep and in the end, they choose what works for them – that is the right answer,” she said. “Functionally, it’s finding a goodness of fit. Something that your child can get the rest that they need, you can get the rest that you need, and I always encourage parents to – it’s ok to set boundaries around sleep.”

Schwichtenberg recommends setting up a sleep routine for your child just like you would for yourself. So that includes having a calming activity before bed.

“Generally, three to four steps, that they can become drowsy and relaxed but then can transition to sleep on their own,” she explained. “Ultimately, you or I don’t require another person to be able to transition to sleep and that’s a skill that we want to foster in them too.”

Dangers of not getting enough zzz’s

There are dangers to not getting enough sleep, and most of the time you won’t even notice how much harm it’s doing to your body until later in life.

Friedman says not getting enough sleep or missing even one night of enough quality sleep can change the way your immune system work.

“You won’t respond as efficiently to a vaccine, there are changes in proteins—immunological proteins and cells that are floating around in your blood in ways that suggest that you may be more vulnerable to infection.”

And missing that quality sleep can have a trickle-down effect.

“In my own studies, I’ve also looked at people’s complaints about sleep,” said Friedman. “For example, if you tell me that you have had chronic sleep issues—you’re more likely, 10 years later, to show up with some kind of functional impairment like not being able to climb up a flight of stairs or walk a mile or bathe or dress yourself.”

Those effects only get worse as we age.

“We just lose the ability to sleep as well,” explained Friedman. “The brain mechanisms that help us sleep and keep us asleep, start to decay.”

Do what’s best for you

Even with all of these tips, Friedman and Schwichtenberg know there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to sleep.

“[It’s] recognizing that there’s individual variabilities,” said Schwichtenberg. “Some people have more sleep need than others and it’s about knowing yourself, knowing your context but when we talk about what’s most beneficial for your health – what’s most beneficial for your family, it’s meeting those needs.”

“I tell my students in class, one of the aspects of sleep hygiene is to have a quiet, dark, cool room and you know, good luck with that in a dorm!” Explained Friedman. “So, you gotta make allowances. There may be structural constraints on your ability to get sleep when you should–like if you work shift work, there’s nothing you can do about that. So, you do the best you can, you try to get sleep when you can and try to have it be a good amount of sleep when you can.”

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