When it comes to getting a solid night’s rest, clocking eight hours is only the beginning.
According to a group of experts, there are tons of factors that contribute to how rested you feel in the morning, from how much you love to hit the snooze button to the sleep stage you’re in when your cat wakes you up. These topics and more were the focus of a recent discussion on the poor-sleep “epidemic” at Soho House LA, hosted by Furthermore from Equinox.
Although sleep is a topic with lots of gray areas, the ill effects from not getting a decent set of zzz’s are totally black-and-white—think overeating, heart disease, and even brain tissue loss (eek!). And according to panelist Michelle Zeidler, MD, director of Los Angeles’ VA Sleep Center, the fast pace of modern life is leading us toward catastrophe at a rapid rate. (Arianna Huffington called it, right?) “The sleep crisis is part of our crisis as a community, wherein everything is rushed,” she says.
Read on to discover five things sleep experts want you to know about slumber—many of which may surprise you.
1. It’s about quality, not quantity
The experts all agreed that everyone needs different amounts of shut-eye—some people don’t feel rested unless they’ve gotten nine hours, while others can thrive on six, and we all need to figure out what our individual sweet spot is. What’s true for all of us, says Dr. Zeidler, is that it’s crucial to cycle through all five sleep stages uninterrupted, including deep sleep (when the body repairs itself) and REM sleep (which helps support cognitive function).
How to know whether this is happening? According to Joseph Dzierzewski, PhD, assistant professor in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, “Do you feel good during the day? Are you able to perform socially and at work? If the answer is yes, you’re probably doing all right.”
2. Sometimes, less is more.
If you naturally wake up a half-hour before you need to, it’s best not to try and get more shut-eye; you’ll be groggier when your alarm finally goes off, says Dr. Zeidler. Plus, notes Dzierzewski,“If you start to wake up multiple times in the morning, fragmented sleep will become a habit.” (He adds that if he needs to ensure a good night’s rest, he’ll actually go to bed an hour later than usual, so that he dozes off right away and sleeps more soundly.)
3. Ambien isn’t always the answer
Though many doctors are quick to dole out sleeping pill scripts for insomniac patients, Dr. Zeidler says it’s important to ask for a full medical work-up to rule out conditions like mood disorders or sleep apnea (which isn’t just a disease of overweight, middle-aged men, she stresses—otherwise healthy women suffer from it, too).
“It’s the golden age of activated, conscious patients, but the medical system is way behind in harnessing that activation,” adds Justin Laube, MD, of UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine. “Primary care doctors aren’t addressing sleep disorders with their patients.” Don’t be shy—if you’re suffering from chronic insomnia, ask to be referred to an accredited sleep clinic.
4. Stick to a sleep routine
Dzierzewski says there are two things that are more important than all others when it comes to sleeping well: going to bed at the same time every night, and waking up at the same time every morning. (Yes, even on weekends and vacations.) To help yourself get into the habit, try adopting a bedtime ritual like this one from Frank Lipman, MD.
5. We should all be tracking our zzz’s
“Monitoring a behavior is a great way to directly change it,” says Dzierzewski, who’s a huge advocate of tracking your zzz’s, whether you think you need to or not. One of the most compelling tracker options is Sense by Hello, a new device that measures not just sleep quality, but also room temperature, humidity, light, and sound. It also correlates how all of these factors impact each other, so you can make changes to improve your shut-eye. Then again, says Dr. Laube, an analog approach also works. “Become your own scientist,” he urges. “Keep a sleep diary if you don’t feel well; do your own experiments on your own symptoms.” (And if you insist on journaling on your phone, at least put it on Night Shift.)