Americans spend a third of their lives sleeping—or trying to, anyway. And although it may come naturally, how and how often people sleep can play a game-changing role in their cognitive abilities.
Getting enough sleep is a smart idea. Literally. A wealth of studies indicate sleep deprivation carries adverse side effects, ranging from poorer mental and physical health to decreases in cognitive performance and development of intelligence, especially among children.
Those dire consequences became clearer in a study of 316 randomly sampled fifth graders in Changsha, China. The students were divided into two groups based on how much sleep they averaged a night. Those who slept less than eight hours were put into a sleep deprivation group, and those who slept eight or more hours a night were deemed the control group.
Researchers administered the Chinese Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children to both groups, finding that students in the sleep deprivation group significantly underperformed in verbal IQ, performance IQ and full-scale IQ. The sleep deprivation group also demonstrated lower verbal comprehension and lower scores for memory/attention, compared with the control group.
But negatives associated with sleep deprivation aren’t exclusive to children. A separate study, conducted by the Sleep Research Unit at the University of Turku in Finland, attributes impared attention and working memory to sleep deprivation. It can also affect long-term memory, decision-making and attention, according to the study.
So if sleep’s that important, just how pervasive is sleep deprivation? How much sleep is enough? And is it possible to sleep too much?
To answer those and other questions related to sleep and brain health, researchers at Western University in London, Ontario, conducted what’s been dubbed the “world’s largest sleep study” back in 2017. More than 40,000 people around the world participated by filling out questionnaires and taking cognitive tests over a three-day period, and the results paint a picture of how the world sleeps.
Of the more than 40,000 participants, approximately half reported sleeping less than 6.3 hours per night. And while pulling all-nighters can be tempting, the study found that those who slept four hours or fewer performed on cognitive tests as though they were about nine years older than their actual age.
“We found that the optimum amount of sleep to keep your brain performing its best is seven to eight hours every night,” lead author of the study Conor Wild said. “That corresponds to what the doctors will tell you you need to keep your body in tip-top shape as well.”
And the findings didn’t stop there. The researchers determined the seven- to eight-hour threshold applied to all adults equally, regardless of age.
Some evidence suggests that even a single night’s sleep could help counteract the negatives associated with sleeping less than the recommended threshold, as participants performed better on tests if they slept more than their usual amount, as opposed to their usual amount or less. But those tempted to sleep in to make up for lost bedtime might want to reconsider.
“We also found that people who slept more than that amount were equally impared as those who slept too little,” Wild said.
Oversleeping is associated with a variety of health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and headaches, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Although it’s not clear whether oversleeping contributes to these illnesses or is just a side effect of them, the cognitive benefits alone warrant reconsideration of that next 12-hour snooze.
Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is becoming more common, particularly among older demographic groups. In fact, aging is considered a source of sleep deprivation—both due to side effects of medications and other medical problems that arise with age, according to Columbia University’s Department of Neurology. It’s estimated that half of people over 65 run into frequent sleeping problems.
So, how does one combat sleep deprivation? Columbia offers the following strategies for people with mild sleep issues:
• Exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day, at least five to six hours before going to bed. That makes one more likely to fall asleep later in the day.
• Avoid substances that contain caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, all of which can disrupt regular sleep patterns. Quitting smoking is always a good idea.
More severe cases of sleep deprivation are tackled best with a personalized, doctor-assisted approach. But regardless of how one reaches the seven- to-eight-hour threshold, getting there is a smart idea.
Arianna Huffington Sleeps
Arianna Huffington, former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, is no stranger to sleep deprivation, having fainted from exhaustion a few years ago. After writing about the experience, she learned on a book tour that the public shares her keen interest in the subject.
So Huffington has continued to devote energy to understanding sleep and sharing what she’s learned. One product of that effort is a book she calls The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
“Sleep is the underpinning of every aspect of our well-being,” Huffington says. “The science shows that sleep affects our decision-making, problem-solving, memory, creativity, focus, attention, energy, and our physical and mental health. So if you’re looking to increase your productivity, you should start with sleep.”
Here’s what else Huffington had to say in an exclusive interview with Luckbox.
How can people know how much sleep they need?
Experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults. There are some who can get by on less—so-called “short sleepers”—but that’s the result of a genetic mutation that occurs in about 1% of people.
Do midday naps work?
If you need them, absolutely. Winston Churchill coined the term “power nap” and won the Second World War, so naps are definitely not a waste of time! As countless studies have shown, they make us more focused, more energized and more efficient in whatever we’re doing throughout the rest of the day.
Where is most of the growth in the $70 billion sleep industry?
It’s in products and technology that help us not just to track our sleep, but also to help us get more sleep. For instance, Thrive recently partnered with Audible to launch a collection of sleep solutions—from guided meditations and bedtime stories to sound baths and microsteps for better sleep—designed to help people rest. The growth in sleep technology shows people are finally realizing how important sleep is, and the market is responding. These can be useful tools helping people increase their sleep quality, but they’re still no substitute for making time to unplug and recharge, both during the day and especially at night.
What are some simple, actionable steps people can take to get a better night’s sleep?
One of my favorite microsteps is to gently escort my devices out of my bedroom before I go to bed. Phones are amazing tools, but they’re also repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep—our to-do lists, our inboxes, our anxieties, the demands of the day. So charging our phones outside of our bedroom makes it more likely that we’ll wake up as fully charged as our phones.
Another microstep that’s especially useful these days is to set a news cut-off time. Being informed is a good thing, especially in a public health crisis, but we also need to take a break from our screens and the stress that can go with them. So we can just pick a time each night when we stop consuming news (getting rid of some push notifications helps too!). This allows us to have a recharging night’s sleep and put the stressful news into perspective.
Sound+Sleep SE, a sound machine designed to help users sleep better, mimics 64 distinct high-definition natural sounds that constantly evolve and never loop. The SE features patented adaptive sound technology that empowers the machine to listen intelligently to the user’s environment and automatically raise volume to mask unwanted noises. $99, soundofsleep.com
SNOOZ, a portable white-noise machine, turns any bedroom into a haven for sleep. Inside, a mechanical fan spins to generate peaceful white noise. Ten volume settings help users fall asleep and stay asleep. The device supports companion apps for added functionality. Use the accompanying app to turn up the volume without getting out of bed, or use the automatic scheduler to set it and forget it. $79, getsnooz.com
Your Green Mattress
Over the course of a lifetime, the average person spends about 26 years (9,490 days) sleeping, not to mention seven years trying to get to sleep. That’s a total of 33 years in bed and a good reason to care about mattresses.
Discussions about healthy sleeping habits often center around when and how long people sleep. That makes it easy to gloss over the importance of what people sleep on. Comfort is undoubtedly essential, and some people prefer firmer mattresses while others favor softer ones. But nobody prefers a mattress that emits noxious chemicals.
Polyurethane, flame retardants and plastics commonly found in mattresses are known to release gaseous chemicals, according to health news syndicator HealthDay. Body heat could play a role in releasing those chemicals while sleeping. The chemical emissions often remain below levels that harm most people, but anyone with sensitivities to them is left looking for alternatives.
Leading the charge to revolutionize the mattress industry are companies like My Green Mattress, which produce and sell organic mattresses.
Tim Masters, the company’s founder, has been in the organic mattress business since 2007, long enough to see his business grow and his direct competitors proliferate. He made his first all-natural mattress for his daughter, who suffered from eczema and allergies, and then turned the idea into a full-scale, family-owned business.
“The organic market has really taken off,” Masters told Luckbox. “It’s just become popularized as of maybe 2016, 2017, so in the last four or five years.”
Masters hoped at the beginning of 2020 for an 8% to 10% annual growth rate. But despite the pandemic, My Green Mattress was ahead 24% in the fourth quarter of 2020—a figure he said made him a slowcomer compared with his friends in the industry.
But what makes organic mattresses, which Masters estimates account for anywhere from 8% to 10% of all mattress sales, different? In the case of My Green Mattress, it means they were made in a GOTS (see right) and GOLS certified factory, often considered the gold standards for guaranteeing a product is organic.
Manufacturers achieve certification for GOTS, or the Global Organic Textile Standard, when an on-site inspection by an independent certification body determines an entire textile supply chain—from processing to trade—meets the ecological and social criteria.
GOLS, or the Global Organic Latex Standard, certification mandates that organic latex and finished latex foam must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic raw material by weight.
Together, the certifications help give consumers peace of mind that the mattresses they purchase are truly made with organic materials.
My Green Mattress supplies a variety of organic mattresses, from hybrid and spring-free to latex-free and crib mattresses. And with so many quarantining students and workers using mattresses as desks and office chairs, the desire to reduce exposure to chemicals may usher in a new era for the organic mattress industry.
Luckbox readers’ My Green Mattress discount code: ESCAPE2020