Here are seven recent findings that might help you rest easier:
1. We sleep better than we think we do
For most of us, sleep deprivation is a myth. We're not zombies. The non-profit National Sleep Foundation (which takes money from the sleep-aid industry, including drug companies that make sleeping pills) says the average U.S. resident gets 7 hours a night and that's not enough, but a University of Maryland study earlier this year shows we typically get 8 hours and are doing fine. In fact, Americans get just as much sleep nowadays as they did 40 years ago, the study found.
2. We need less sleep as we age
We'll die without sleep. The details are sketchy, but research suggests it's a time when we restore vital biological processes and also sort and cement memories. Last year, the World Health Organization determined that nightshift work, which can lead to sleep troubles, is a probable human carcinogen. On the upside, the latest research suggests we need less of it as we get older.
3. You can sleep like a baby
Multiple, shorter sleep sessions nightly, rather than one long one, are an option. So-called polyphasic sleep is seen in babies, the elderly and other animals (and Thomas Edison reportedly slept this way). For the rest of us, it is more realistic and healthy to sleep at night as best we can and then take naps as needed. EEGs show that we are biphasic sleepers with two alertness dips - one at night time and one mid-day. So talk to HR about setting up a nap room, like they have for NASA's Phoenix mission team members.
4. Animals exhibit a range of sleep habits
The three-toed sloth sleeps 9.6 hours nightly. But newborn dolphins and killer whales can forgo sleeping for their entire first month. However, the latter extreme is not recommended for humans. We grow irritable and lose our ability to focus and make decisions after even one night of missed sleep, and that can lead to serious accidents driving and using other machinery.
5. Get used to being tired, hit the desk
The bottom line is that a good night's sleep is within the reach of most of us if we follow common-sense guidelines for sleep hygiene:
Go to bed at the same time nightly.
Set aside enough time to hit that golden 7 hours of sleep.
Refrain from caffeine, heavy or spicy foods, and alcohol and other optional medications that might keep you awake, four to six hours before bed-time.
Have a pre-sleep routine so you wind down before you hop in.
Block out distracting lights and noises.
Only engage in sleep and sex in bed (no TV-watching, reading or eating).
6. Rising early is stressful.
The stress hormone cortisol peaks in your blood around 7 am. So if you get up then, you may experience tension. Grab some extra Zs! You'll wake up feeling less like Bert, more like Ernie.
7. Night owls are more creative. (yes I know you don't need to sleep :) )
Artists, writers, and coders typically fire on all cylinders by crashing near dawn and awakening at the crack of noon. In one study, "evening people" almost universally slam-dunked a standardized creativity test. Their early-bird brethren struggled for passing scores.