In your quest to achieve the perfect, fully-optimized night’s sleep, it helps to check in on sleep research every once in a while. After all, scientists are always discovering new things about sleep, and putting old myths to rest (no, sleeping with your window open won’t give you a cold). Here, we’ve pored through the latest sleep science to let you know what’s what in the world of rest.
It’s okay to check your phone (quickly!) in the middle of the night
We all know screens are bad for sleep, but a new study from researchers at Northwestern University declares that checking your smartphone in the middle of the night isn’t going to disrupt your circadian rhythm long-term. Looking at your phone does expose your brain to short pulses of light, but that’s not as bad as it sounds, say the researchers. That’s because separate areas of the brain are responsible for processing short pulses of light versus long-term exposure to light. In other words, only light that interferes with your circadian rhythms (i.e. your body’s 24-hour cycle) is disruptive, and a quick peek at the clock on your phone at 3 AM isn’t that. (This doesn’t mean you should open up Instagram, though.)
Don’t fall asleep in front of The Simpsons
Falling asleep to the soothing voices of your favorite characters might feel relaxing, but it’s going to wreck the quality of your sleep. “The light can go through your eyelids, so your brain still processes the exposure,” says Ken Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory in Boulder, CO. The result is “fragmented sleep and more arousals throughout the night wherein your heart races or your brain waves speed up.” The science is clear: before you officially snooze, find the energy to close your computer.
Cigarettes and booze aren’t your friend
A study led by a researcher at Florida Atlantic University showed that drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette within four hours of bedtime was pretty much a guaranteed way to have a worse night’s sleep than if you hadn’t touched booze or nicotine at all. The study was particularly meaningful since participants didn’t have previous sleep problems—in fact, most of them were fairly good sleepers. But if they drank or smoked within four hours of bedtime, their sleep suffered. The alcohol led to decreased sleep efficiency, while the nicotine in cigarettes was particularly bad, leading to increasingly fragmented sleep, decreased total sleep time, and increased sleep onset latency. The science is clear: four hours before bedtime, drop the cigarettes, and turn down that cocktail.
Good sleep makes you a genius (sort of)
Mice in the labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had their brains examined after being subjected to sleep deprivation. The worse their sleep, the larger their synapses became. Sleep, it turns out, weakens those neuron connections, which is actually how our brains prepare for a new day of learning. Think of good sleep as a way to recalibrate your brain—a solid night makes your brain something of an “open book,” ready to gather more knowledge.
Sleep habits are different around the world
At the University of Helsinki, scientists studied how people sleep all over the globe, and a whole slew of fun facts emerged. Guess who sleeps the longest? People in Europe and North America. The shortest nights’ sleep? Asia. From the Middle East, reports came in that people are falling asleep later, while in Oceania, people fall asleep earlier than anywhere else in the world. Try picturing yourself in a soothing Oceania bedroom next time you find yourself tossing and turning.
Don’t count sheep, get out of bed
Speaking of tossing and turning, if you often wake up and can’t get back to sleep, don’t just lie there. “Your bed will become a conditioned stimulus for wakefulness," says Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Stand up, move a bit, read a book in a chair. You may be awake longer, he says, but “you’ll build sleep pressure to help you sleep better the next night.”
Bad sleep has some serious consequences
We’ve suspected this for years, but scientists continue to support the idea. For example, poor sleep is just as bad as smoking or lack of exercise. Even if you have no family record of cardiovascular disease, says a University of Colorado at Boulder study, you boost your risk of heart attack if you sleep poorly, too little, or even too much. And just a few days of poor sleep can cause you to gain weight, say researchers at Penn State. In their study, sleep-deprived participants reported feeling less full after eating a high-fat meal, and blood samples showed that their bodies ended up storing more fat. Finally, if you aren’t sleeping well, you may be in more pain in the morning. Psychology Today reports that our pain threshold falls nearly fifteen percent after just one night of inadequate rest.
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“Checking your phone at night does not affect your body clock in the long run,” News Medical Life Sciences
Sleep Disorder Research News, Science Daily
“Sleep interrupted: What's keeping us up at night?” Science Daily
“Sleep varies by age, geographical location and gender,” University of Helsinki
“The New Science of Sleep,” Psychology Today