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Our Dangerous Obsession With Sleep

It is estimated that a staggering 80 percent of the Irish population is sleep deprived. Sleeping less than 7 hours each night, we’re told, is detrimental to one’s health. According to the experts, we should all strive for at least 7 – but preferably 8 – hours of shuteye each night.

Unless you happen to be a young child or teenager, both of whom require excessive amounts of sleep, I implore you not to believe the hype.

Now, before going any further, it’s important to state the following: sleep – more specifically, quality sleep – is of vital importance. Sleep helps with memory consolidation and emotion regulation. A healthy body and a healthy mind, for the two are inextricably linked, requires quality sleep. We regularly obsess about the amount of hours we sleep when we really should be focused on the quality of our sleep. After all, six hours of uninterrupted, peaceful rest is much more beneficial than 8 or 9 hours of tossing and turning.

Studies clearly show that, for adults, anywhere between 6 and 6.5 hours of sleep is more than enough. In fact, in one comprehensive study, researchers found that people who slept peacefully for anywhere between 5 hours and 50 minutes and 6 hours and 30 minutes performed much better in cognitive tasks than those who slept more or less.

One cannot discuss sleep without discussing exercise. The average Irish person gets nowhere near enough exercise. Almost 40 percent of people are overweight, and close to 1 in 4 are obese. “Yes,” some will say, “but I am too tired to exercise.”

That’s no excuse. Research shows that exercising when you feel tired, even if you only managed to get a few hours sleep, is most definitely in your best interest. Yes, I know, the suggestion that one should exercise when he or she feels exhausted may seem completely counterproductive. But, first and foremost, exhaustion is often mental, not physical — especially for the average Irish person.

A moderately intensive 20-minute round of exercise can provide you with an enormous energy boost. It clears out all the mental clutter, helps you think more clearly, and boosts mood by flooding the brain with endorphins, the so-called “happiness hormones.” Moreover, people who exercise regularly tend to sleep better at night. No matter how busy your schedule is, 20 minutes of exercise a few times a week should be achievable. In truth, it should be mandatory.

If you happen to be chronically sleep deprived, a recent study by the European Society of Cardiology suggests that completing 20-25 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day can negate some of the adverse health consequences associated with sleeping too little.

This obsession – and that’s what it has become – with how many hours of sleep we are getting is deeply unhealthy. It’s not too dissimilar to the way in which some dieters obsessively count calories (not advised). The growing obsession with getting enough sleep has resulted in a relatively new condition known as  orthosomnia, best described as a monomaniacal pursuit of the “perfect” night’s kip. Like mad scientists, many compulsively track their sleeping data.

Ironically, this blind pursuit of perfection often results in stress, restlessness, and even insomnia.

The truth is this: sleep is a complex phenomenon,and we are complex beings. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously survived on 4 hours each night — although, I wouldn’t suggest using her as a sleep-based role model. My point is this: what works for your friend, sibling, lover, work colleague, etc. probably won’t work for you.

That’s because humans have different chronotypes — four, to be exact.

For the uninitiated, the word ‘chronotype’ describes the  body’s natural disposition to be alert or slumberous at certain times of the day. We are all familiar with the idea of the “early bird” and the infamous “night owl.” However, sleep scientists actively ignore the bird and owl tropes, and instead focus on four different animals: bears, wolves, dolphins, and lions.

Most adults are bears. In other words, their sleep and wake cycles sync with the rising and setting of the sun. Of the four types, they are the most likely to succumb to the dreaded 3 p.m. slump. Wolves,, meanwhile, have trouble waking in the morning, but tend to be most alert around midday. Dolphins have trouble getting both good quality and a decent quantity of sleep. Why the term ‘dolphin’? Because dolphins are known for engaging in unihemispheric sleep, with only one brain hemisphere sleeping at a time. Finally, we have the lions who rise incredibly early, easily waking before dawn. They tend to be at their sharpest up until midday. By 9 p.m,, they are ready to call it a night.

As is clear to see, although the idea of humans labeling themselves ‘bears’ or ‘dolphins’ might sound simplistic, childish even, different chronotypes call for different approaches to sleep, including when to wind down and when to wake up. Nevertheless, whatever chronotype you happen to be, try to get somewhere between 6 and 6.5 hours a night. And, as mentioned, get plenty of exercise, even if you feel sluggish — especially when you feel sluggish. Consistency is key. If you fail to meet your sleep and exercise goals now and again, don’t panic — it’s not worth losing a night’s sleep over.

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