It happens in the wee hours of the night. I can’t say exactly what wakes me up. Maybe it’s a sound outside my window. Or nature calling. But before I know it, I’m staring at the ceiling, replaying the events of the day in my head. Or scrolling through my to-do list.
When I find myself in this situation, I’m pulled in two distinctly different directions. One instinct says to lie there and try to get back to sleep. Staying still and calming my brain, I tell myself, presents the quickest road back to slumberville and much-needed sleep. Plus, I figure, even if I don’t get back to sleep, the rest I get in bed should be worth something.
But the other voice I hear says, “Get up. Your brain is in gear, so just accept the inevitable and get cranking, even if it is the middle of the night.”
Which course is best?
Dr. Prescott prescribes
If misery loves company, so does insomnia.
According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, roughly 30 percent of adults — more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone — report having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Of these folks, about one-third experience sleep difficulties that impair their ability to function in daily life. So you’re far from alone.
When you awaken at night, experts almost uniformly agree that if you don’t fall back to sleep quickly, trying to will yourself back to sleep is not an effective strategy. Thinking about all the shut-eye you’re missing out on will create sleep anxiety, which further diminishes your chances of returning to the Land of Nod.
Instead, as counterintuitive as it may sound, get up and do something. Nothing too strenuous (or involving screens) — just enough to distract you for a bit. When you’re feeling tired and less anxious, hit the hay and try again.
Research shows that most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Consistently falling short of these figures can compromise your health and even shorten your life. I won’t give you the long version, but studies have shown that, among other things, sleep deprivation: negatively affects the heart, lungs and kidneys; slows metabolism and leads to weight gain; makes people more susceptible to colds and flu; impairs memory, learning and problem-solving; and is a risk factor for depression.
The fact that you’re waking in the middle of the night is not necessarily a sign that anything is wrong. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that “segmented” sleep can be as effective as a single block of sleep, so long as you’re getting a total of seven to eight hours.
Scientific evidence tells us that sleep is the time when the brain’s physiological maintenance systems kick in. Without adequate shut-eye, your cellular janitors won’t have time to clean up all the waste left over from a day’s worth of thinking. So be sure not to shortchange yourself, because a brain filled with cognitive trash will not serve you well.
Stephen Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Adam Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel.
At a glance
Five tips to optimize your chances of getting a solid night of sleep
1. Drink less caffeine, and none in the evening.
2. Exercise during the day, but not in the five to six hours before bed.
3. Go to bed at the same time each night.
4. No computers, tablets or smartphones in the hour before bed.
5. Leave your phone in the other room while you sleep.