"You're going to bed? Everyone else is still working."
"You have such an early bedtime, how cute!"
"Can't you stay out late on the weekends for once?"
Sleep has taken a back seat in today's 24/7 society. There is often a patronizing tone used toward people who go to bed "early" or actually get the amount of sleep our bodies need to function properly.
There is constant pressure to stay up just a little bit later and squeeze in a little bit more into our already hectic lives. What many people don't realize is that these lost minutes and hours add up and contribute to our sleep debt.
This is the amount of sleep a person loses whenever they get less than their required sleep needs -- and it's cumulative (sleeping six hours a night for a week with an eight hour requirement equals 14 hours of sleep debt).
This adds up and needs to be repaid in the form of sleeping more. An overly large sleep debt is what drives a person to fall asleep when they are awake, especially during activities such as driving, sitting, studying, watching TV, or other similar sedentary activities.
When a person's sleep debt is high enough, they can fall asleep driving or even during physical activity. A more entertaining example is when a teammate on the women's rowing team managed to fall asleep during the rest period between two parts of a workout. This is an urgent sign that a person isn't sleeping enough.
Some would ask, "Why should I bother going to bed? I get so much more done when I stay up and work." Arguably, you may increase the volume of your work temporarily. However, the work you produce is likely not very high quality.
Going to work or school half asleep is nowhere near ideal, and you are much more likely to make errors and learn less than you would if you had a manageable sleep debt of a few hours.
But how is adequate sleep determined? One way to find this out is to pay attention to how you feel during the day. Do you get sleepy while sitting in class? While hanging out talking with friends? Lying in bed talking on the phone? If so, these are signs that you probably have a very high sleep debt.
If you notice you feel sleepy regularly, take two weeks where you follow a fairly strict sleep schedule -- about 8 hours of sleep a night. See how you feel at the end of the two weeks. If you notice you are very alert during the day and can easily wake up in the morning, you have found your sleep requirement. If this proves ineffective, repeat with a longer time spent asleep.
Luckily, there are some fairly simple ways to ensure that the time you spend in bed and asleep are effective.
First: create an optimal sleeping environment. Make sure that you keep your bedroom for sleeping. Activities such as studying or watching TV in bed weaken the association you have between sleep and your bed.
Next: Keep your sleep schedule fairly regular. It is hard on your body having a strict schedule during the week, lax on bedtime over the weekend, then the awful shock of the alarm on Monday morning. As much as possible, keep your bedtime and wake time similar from the week to weekend. Even if you diverge from your bedtime, if you have one at least you will know when you didn't follow it. Set aside time to unwind before bed so as not to spend hours lying awake in bed.
Third: Avoid substances that alter the sleep/wake cycle. Caffeine too close to bed, as many know, keeps the body awake. Along with this, tea, sugar, and even exercising later at night can negatively affect the sleep cycle. A paradoxical effect is seen with alcohol -- even though you may fall asleep soundly, this sleep is fragmented and less restorative than a solid night's sleep.
Lastly, taking care of your general health will improve your sleep. Making physical fitness and nutrition a priority will contribute to being able to sleep well. Good nutrition will make you feel more energized, and exercising (preferably in the early afternoon) will contribute to sound sleep.
Sleep is important and no one is weak for taking the time they need to reduce their sleep debt. Having a low sleep debt will ultimately make you a healthier, more alert, more efficient, and happier person.
Autumn Turpin is a freshman at Stanford University, and she wrote this piece as part of an outreach project to raise awareness about the connection between sleep and health.