Hopefully, you’ve slept off your New Year’s Eve hangover by now. If not, you have our deepest sympathies – 2020 was a rough year so you can be forgiven for indulging in a Swift or twelve over the last few days.
But now that our circadian rhythms are approaching normalcy, we ought to take a good look at our health going into 2021. Maybe one of your New Year’s resolutions was to take better care of yourself, or maybe (like us) you’re sceptical about how quickly we’ll be rid of The Bat Kiss, and want to make sure we’re in tip-top condition for this still-unfolding apocalypse.
In any case, there’s no better time to have a good hard look at our health habits – with the stresses of having survived 2020 being touted as being just as bad for us as smoking – and an easy place to start is with our sleep hygiene.
A mountain of scientific evidence supports the conclusion that sleep has an enormous effect on both our physical and mental health. For example, not only does poor sleep hygiene affect your stress levels, productivity, mood and reasoning capabilities, but “sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies… growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health,” the US’ National Institutes of Health relates.
On top of that, they also report that “sleep can affect the efficiency of vaccinations… [with] research showing that well-rested people who received the flu vaccine developed stronger protection against the illness.” This is particularly relevant in 2021 with the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
We’ve long been told that adults should be getting at least eight hours of sleep, but in recent times debate has also revolved around when you get those eight hours. Notably, New York Magazine’s senior health writer Katie Heaney caused a stir back in 2018 when she suggested that the best time to go to bed was 8:45pm – mortifying night owls in the process.
Her argument boils down to this: getting up early is good for you, and in order to get up early and still get your eight hours, you need to go to bed early too. If you clock off work at 6pm, 8:45 gives you enough time to get home, eat, shower and so on, and then get ready for a good night’s rest:
“Most nights, I am in bed by 8:45, reading my usual two-and-a-half pages of whatever book I’m struggling to stay awake through at that time. That way, I’m asleep by 9:15, and turning off my alarm at 5:15 a.m.: a perfect eight-hour night. At first it might feel like you’re missing things, but eventually you will be so well-rested, and so well adjusted, that you’ll float above such petty concerns.”
While on paper this makes sense, our gut reaction says that this feels overly puritan. So what’s the go – should we all be going to bed at 8:45? Or is there a different (and less painful way) to optimise our sleep hygiene?
This ABC Everyday article from 2019 relates that the science around sleep isn’t so cut-and-dry, talking to multiple sleep experts who reveal that everyone has slightly different, natural genetic preferences around when they most like to sleep – in layman’s terms, some people are just genuinely night owls or morning people, and will feel better rested on a sleep schedule that suits their natural preferences, with Dr Gorica Micic from the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Flinders University putting it like this:
“We have these general innate preferences to be either a morning type or evening type… most of us are sort of in-between… we can generally fall asleep between 9pm and midnight and awake up between 6-7am, so the ideal time is different for everybody.”
The article also elaborates that it is possible to adjust your natural body clock with professional guidance, but “you can’t change your genetics” – an 8:45 bedtime just might not be feasible, or even productive, for some of us.
The article also examines how not all adults need exactly eight hours sleep either. Some of us need more, some of us can cope with less, and how much sleep we need changes as we age.
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Another important element of sleep hygiene is not only how much sleep you get or when you’re going to bed and waking up, but also having a consistent sleep pattern. Even Heaney agrees: “I will concede that having a routine bedtime is good for you, so if that means you need to make yours 10pm instead of 8:45, I don’t endorse it, but I understand it.”
Melbourne-based sleep expert Olivia Arezzolo says you need to “commit to the consistency.”
“Cortisol wakes us up in the morning and melatonin puts us to sleep in the evening – so it’s like a hormonal seesaw. If you disrupt your biological clock by staying up late one night there’s kind of a knock-on effect to the next night, too.”
Perhaps that’s the key: not when, or how much, but sticking to a (healthy) pattern of sleep.
So don’t worry, night owls – you can stop holding your breath. Actually, wait, hold that thought: holding your breath might actually be good for you, as our interview with Bondi Rescue star and health expert Dean Gladstone reveals…