For so many educators, summers are crammed with long lists of to-dos: books to read, school-related plans to create, and moments of fun, family, and perhaps self-care. Most of the time, I try to squeeze too much into those few weeks of break, and I often find myself emerging from summer feeling slightly disappointed that I didn't get more done. Here's my top goal for this summer, and one I encourage you to adopt: Sleep. Get it, learn about it, and commit to it.
Why We Need Sleep: A Reminder
Sleep affects our physical and emotional health, and it involves a range of complex functions associated with memory, ability to learn, brain development, appetite, immune functioning, and aging. If you find yourself sleep-binging on the weekend or during vacation, that's a sign that you are probably not getting enough sleep during the week. Look, I know how busy you are, how many people need and want you, and how much there is endlessly to do -- and I know you need to sleep more. Read on for a quick overview of why we need sleep.
Sleep and Physical Well-Being
Researchers have found connections between sleep and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, poor memory, weight gain, and even shortened lifespan. According to a study published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association, sleep has been proven to be the single most important factor in predicting longevity.
One of the most recent and important scientific findings about sleep is that sleep is like bringing in an overnight cleaning crew to clear out the toxic waste proteins that accumulate between brain cells during the day. This cleaning out of our brains can only happen when we're sleeping; during the day, our brains are too busy handling our body's many functions.
Sleep and Emotional Well-Being
The great majority of us know first-hand how being sleep deprived can negatively affect our emotional equilibrium. When we're tired, we're more likely to be short-tempered, impatient, and moody.
The neuroscience is complicated, but in brief: Researchers have found that REM sleep (a kind of sleep that occurs at intervals during the night and is characterized by rapid eye movements and more dreaming) is key to our emotional well-being. During REM sleep, the part of our brain called the amygdala does a lot of processing of negative emotions, like fear.
This processing leads us to be less emotionally reactive. What happens is biochemical: in other words, this isn't processing that we can do while awake, while talking or processing emotions in some other ways. Our brains need us to sleep in order to deal with our emotions.
There's real science behind the notion that we should "sleep on" our problems. During sleep, our brains actually continue to process information from the day and form new connections that stabilize and enhance our memories. We can even find new solutions or insights into problems, all while we are sleeping.
Here are a few quick things you can do to get started on shifting your sleep routines:
- Know how much sleep you need: Most of us need between eight to nine hours.
- Start by getting 30 minutes more per night than you are now.
- Don't keep any electronics in your bedroom. Leave your phones, computers, and iPads somewhere else so that you're not tempted to look at them in the middle of the night or first thing upon waking.
- Don't look at screens for 30 to 60 minutes before going to sleep. Computer light obstructs the body's production of melatonin, which promotes sleep.
- Have a wind-down routine: Baths, showers, meditation, reading for fun, whatever helps you transition from the day to sleep.
A word about insomnia: For those who want to sleep more -- and know you need to, but can't -- perhaps this summer offers an opportunity to explore what's behind your insomnia. There are many factors that are believed to cause insomnia, and each body is different. Explore, learn, talk to others, and try different things.
Take advantage of the summer to establish some new and healthier sleep routines. Notice how you feel different as a result of sleeping, and then reflect on what it'll take for you to continue these new habits into the school year.
For further reading, Arianna Huffington has become the world's top sleep evangelist. I recommend her book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time.