It’s too bad someone hasn’t figured out how to give the gift of sleep. Imagine how great it would be if, for your birthday, you received a gift card loaded with 24 hours of sleep that you could use whenever you needed it! The fatigue, poor concentration and irritability suffered after a poor night’s sleep—things that interfere with your plan to eat right and exercise—would be erased. Until scientists pull off that magic trick, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: Advice from a genius sleep expert. We tapped Carl Bazil, M.D., Director of the Division of Epilepsy Sleep Center at Columbia University in New York City, to satisfy our curiosity about sleep myths and truths, and what keeps experts like himself up at night.
What would you say is the top myth about getting a good night’s sleep?
One of the top ones is the idea that having an alcoholic drink before bedtime helps you sleep. People think it relaxes you, and it does at first, but alcohol actually interferes with your ability to stay asleep.
What is the best or worst night’s sleep you ever got?
The worst night’s sleep was when I was not getting any sleep at all, when I was an intern in medical school. Also, I don’t sleep well when something is stressing me out. That happened the other night, actually. I couldn’t stop thinking about something that happened at work that day. I wanted to resolve it and I couldn’t let it go. Your mind gets fixated and jazzed up. That’s a good thing if, for example, you’re sleeping in a jungle and you’re worried about getting eaten by a tiger—you’ll stay awake to defend yourself. But in modern society, there’s usually nothing that dramatic that demands we stay up all night.
So what do you do in those cases?
I use progressive relaxation, where I visualize different parts of my body relaxing. This helps focus my brain on other things, calm it down and turn off the alerting signals that are keeping me awake and thinking.
It seems like there are times in life, new parenthood, for example, when our bodies should be able to adapt to less sleep. Can you train yourself to exist on less sleep?
There’s pretty good evidence that you can’t. In the short-term—if you’re already well-rested—you can get away with a poor night’s sleep and not suffer any consequences. But if you’re short-changing yourself on consecutive nights, memory and attention will suffer. One remarkable study looked at groups of people getting eight hours of sleep—the amount that most people need—six hours or four hours for 14 days straight and none at all for three days straight. After the first day, there weren’t any differences in memory and concentration.But by the end of the week, the people getting six hours a night were nearly as bad off as those getting none for one night! Sleep debt accumulates quickly and it has to be paid back. So if you get one night of poor sleep, try to make up for it as soon as possible.
What about those lucky people who seem to need only five or six hours of sleep? Do they actually suffer when they don’t get eight hours?
There is a subset of “short sleepers” who seem just fine on five or six hours indefinitely…and we all hate them! In fact, they do show some signs of sleep deprivation when studied, but for some reason, they are more resilient to its effects. I remember a medical student once proudly saying that he had no problems on five hours of sleep. After we spoke for a bit, I learned he’d been having hallucinations around bedtime, sleep paralysis and increased sleep walking, all symptoms of sleep deprivation. So I suspect that, although he was clearly smart and functioned well, he would probably be even better if he got more sleep.
Could adding an extra hour of sleep to your night help you lose weight?
I’m not sure that an hour would make the difference, but there is interesting research that suggests adequate sleep helps with weight loss. Some people mistakenly think that if you stay up later you’re actually burning more calories, but that’s not true. In fact, if you’re fatigued the next day as a result of not clocking what you need, you’re less active. It’s complex, but restricting sleep can make you more lethargic and may involve hormonal changes that can contribute to weight gain.
What type of mattress do you sleep on?
I’m not picky when it comes to mattresses—I don’t even know what brand I have. In general, spending huge amounts of money on a fancy mattress isn’t going to guarantee a good night’s sleep.
I’ve read that having a sleep routine can help you get to sleep more easily. Do you have a bedtime routine?
I always try to wind down before bedtime. Walking the dog on the dark, quiet streets of the West Village in New York City helps me relax. I also enjoy listening to relaxing music. If I’m particularly wound up, I may do some yoga (though I’m not very good at it). I’m fortunate—that’s usually enough for me!