When the golfer Tiger Woods left Stanford and announced he was turning professional, a reporter asked him what he was looking forward to now that he wasn’t going to college any more. He answered: “I will finally get enough sleep.” Apparently Tiger put himself through the same torture test as most college students. He didn’t get enough sleep.
Ironically, just across campus at Stanford is the world’s leading expert on sleep. Dr. William Dement, a pioneer in the field of sleep research, founded the Stanford Center for Sleep in order to help people the world over understand the importance of sleep. When asked at a major conference years ago what was the number one problem related to sleep, Dr. Dement immediately answered “Sleep debt!”
According to the Sleep Center’s literature, here is what they define as sleep debt:
To make the long story short, each of us has a certain sleep requirement every night that we need to keep us functioning at our optimal level. When we fall short of the minimal sleep requirementwe incur a sleep debt that prevents us from functioning at our best.This debt, if not addressed, can add up over time, very rapidly, and significantly alter our productivity, mood, and even our safety.
Almost every person needs a minimum of 8 hours sleep a night. In his book “The Promise of Sleep” Dr. Dement estimates that most people incur at least one hour’s debt per night–many people have more. This growing sleep debt causes many of our worst health problems: auto-immune problems, inability to fight off viruses, hypertension, cell malformation (sometimes resulting in benign tumors), malabsorption of nutrients–which cause many other health problems–migraine headaches, joint problems, sight difficulties etc. Not only that, but researchers have determined that over 100,000 die every year in car accidents because one driver was either sleep deprived or asleep at the wheel.
But I believe there are emotional and spiritual tolls we pay when we don’t sleep enough. Dr. Jack Hayford, pastor Emeritus of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, teaches regularly that the best spiritual warfare we can do is to get enough sleep. He says that the Enemy really is prowling around like a lion seeking whom he can devour. Those who have a lot of sleep debt find they have trouble resisting temptation, become irritable easier and give in more often to resentment. These things all cause spiritual deterioration.
How do you know if you have sleep debt? Here are some of the main signs that Dr. Dement says we need to look for:
1. Do you get drowsy during the day? Drowsiness is not a condition of your environment–such as a warm room or a difficult work situation–but rather of your tendency to not sleep enough.
2. Do you need caffeine to function efficiently? Dr. Dement is an advocate for eliminating caffeine completely. If you need that boost in the morning, you are not getting enough sleep.
3. Do you fall asleep in less than ten minutes? If you do, you have a sleep debt. Sleep debt causes the mind to shut down much more rapidly. Normally, a person who gets enough sleep should be able to fall asleep in about 10-20 minutes on average. In addition, if you wake up tired on a consistent basis, you are suffering from sleep debt. After a good night’s rest, you should not have trouble waking up. Any trouble waking up is caused by your body trying to get more sleep to make up for the debt.
4. Are there parts of your day when you have virtually no energy at all? This is common with sleep indebted people.
You should be getting at least 8 hours sleep EVERY night. If you are not, then the sleep debt is going to take its toll on you, your relationships, your health, your work output, your joy, your walk with God and your peace of mind. Every hour less than 8 hours a night is a debt you need to pay back as soon as possible. Here are six ideas that can help you get back on the right track.
1. Have absolutely hard established bedtimes and waking times. Dr. Lydia Dotto, author of “Losing Sleep” suggests that even migraine headaches can be eliminated by training our internal clocks when they are going to go to bed. I did this for a year once…not changing my bedtime at all. By the end of that year, I could go to bed and wake up without looking at the clock and it was always at exactly the same time. Our body clocks, once they are trained, are that accurate. When you establish waking and sleeping times, you are making sleep a much higher priority.
2. Turn off the television after 9 p.m. Television watching may be called “vegging out” by many people, but it doesn’t have that effect on us. The television raises your Alpha waves above the level of relaxation. You are always on a heightened sense of alert when you watch the tube. Unfortunately, most people assume they can watch television at night to help them relax and fall asleep. Nothing could be further from the truth. You would be much better advised to read a book, crochet a sock or write in a journal than watch t.v.
3. Do not exercise before bed. With the advent of many new “super-routines” more and more people are focusing on getting in one more workout before sleep. This raises your glandular output too much. The body’s circadian rhythms start to slow down naturally in the two hours before bedtime. If you cut into that slowdown with exercise, it will make it that much harder to get to sleep.
4. Track your sleep and make up for sleep debt. Everyone has nights where they don’t sleep well. (Note: If that is every night for you, talk to your doctor about a sleep clinic. You should be getting a good night’s rest every night and there are doctors who specialize in finding out why you’re not). If you have a night of less-than-ideal sleep, find times during the week to nap. Also, allow yourself to sleep extra on those days you don’t have to get up early.
5. Get rid of caffeine. If you are getting enough sleep, you don’t need caffeine. The caffeine in soda, coffee and energy drinks messes up your biological clock. Of course, because some people have not slept enough for years, it may seem they cannot function without caffeine. That is probably true. But that is like the person who maxes out their credit cards, spends every cent and needs another credit card because they have no more cash. At some point, the madness has to stop. Caffeine is the enemy to enough sleep. Kick the habit.
6. Plan ahead. When I personally started to get my sleep habit back in order I realized my biggest problem is I never planned my sleep well. I would stay up later than I needed to. I never realized that sleep is something to guard, so I didn’t. Planning ahead means that you are home at a decent hour to get to bed at a decent hour, to wake up at a decent hour having procured a decent amount of sleep. Therefore, the planning must start a long time before you want to sleep. If friends want to stay out late and you cannot sleep in, you may be the first one to go home. It may feel like you are the party pooper, but remember that every party needs one and that might as well be you. At least you will be physically and emotionally healthy to accept the ridicule.
Last year, I advised two different people on their sleep debt. Both of them embarked on a project to get enough sleep. Both of them reported better mental health as a result. Additionally, even though neither of them were overweight, they both reported their weight went down as they started to crave healthier foods. It is known that we often crave sugar and carbs when our energy levels are too low. This is often a function of sleep debt as well.
So for all the wonderful things sleep can do for you, get rid of your sleep debt and make sleep a huge priority for 2014.