Prime Slumber

Allure
April 2005

They brag incessantly about needing only five hours a night. They call you at 9:01 every Sunday morning and rattle off their accomplishments (since when did “scrapbooking” become a verb?). You have every reason to hate those speed sleepers, but they really deserve your compassion. Because they’re going to get fat and forgetful, and they’re going to an early grave. Just listen to the doctors. They found that after 18 hours without sleep, people’s reaction times mimic those of people with a blood-alcohol level of .08 (that’s two-plus martinis—aka legally drunk in most states). Even getting a few hours less than the recommended eight is linked to memory lapses, weight gain, and over time, heart disease. The simple message: You snooze, you win.

DECEPTION: ONE FEWER HOUR A NIGHT WON’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
TRUTH:
Sleep loss is not a night-by-night issue. In fact, it’s so relentlessly cumulative that experts refer to it as a sleep debt. Much like eating an extra slice of cheesecake every day, regularly sleeping an hour less than the average can do some serious damage over time. Greg Belenky, director of Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center, found that study subjects who were allowed only seven or fewer hours of sleep for seven days performed, day by day, progressively worse on response time. Granted, no one’s talking life and death here…unless you shave off one more hour. In a study led by Alexandros Vgontzas, professor of psychiatry at Pennsylvania State University, sleep-lab subjects who were permitted to doze eight hours a night for four nights and then only six hours a night for the next week showed increased blood levels of proteins associated with heart and other chronic diseases.

DECEPTION: I’LL CATCH UP ON MY SLEEP OVER THE WEEKEND.
TRUTH:
This held a certain charm in college, but then again, so did beer pong. If you have a real job, spotty sleep can be as debilitating as a nasty hangover. Aside from the fact that you’ll be a blithering idiot by Friday after a week of delinquency, sleeping in for an extra hour on Saturday and Sunday won’t make up for it. If you’re prepared to spend some serious time in bed, though, you can pay back sleep debt—at a pretty favorable exchange rate. “We only need to make up one third of what we’ve lost,” says Mark Mahowald, professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “So if you go into the weekend nine hours down, your mood, sustained attention abilities, and alertness should be back to baseline with three extra hours over the weekend.” The exception: People prone to insomnia should keep their sleep/wake schedules as consistent as possible.

DECEPTION: I’LL NAP TOMORROW.
TRUTH:
Good idea—up to a point. A short period of rest can be invigorating, says Phillyis Zee, professor of neurology at Northwestern University. The problem is that napping for longer than 30 minutes takes you into a deeper sleep, “so when someone wakes you up, your brain waves are slow, and you can feel groggy and confused,” she says. “Your performance will actually be worse immediately afterward.” (The loginess usually goes away after 20 to 30 minutes, but can last an hour or longer.) Even if you aren’t planning to operate any heavy machinery later, an extended siesta in the afternoon will make it harder to drift off at bedtime.

DECEPTION: WHEN I HIT THE SNOOZE BUTTON, I EKE OUT A BIT MORE REST.
TRUTH:
It seems like the most civilized way to face the morning, but smacking the snooze button every five minutes actually makes for an even ruder awakening. Fragmented sleep is hardly restful, “because the brain doesn’t have a chance to cycle through all the necessary stages of deep sleep,” says Greg Maislin of the University of Pennsylvania Division of Sleep Medicine. In fact, when scientists at the Dayton VA Medical Center in Ohio roused subjects at varying intervals over an eight-hour period, scores on mental tasks increased with the amount of uninterrupted sleep people got. “They found that the benefits of sleep don’t even start until you get solid ten-minute blocks,” says Richard V. Simon, medical director of the Kathryn Severyns Dement Sleep Disorder Center in Walla Walla, Washington. “I tell patients that their alarm shouldn’t go off until they really have to get out of bed,” Meir Kryger, author of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep Disorders (McGraw Hill) suggests ditching the alarm altogether. “If you need one to wake up every morning,” he says, “then you’re not sleeping enough or you have a sleep disorder.”

DECEPTION: IF DONALD TRUMP CAN GET BY ON FOUR HOURS A NIGHT, SO CAN I.
TRUTH:
Those who claim they can get by on minimal rest tend to exaggerate (not Donald!) or sneak naps; otherwise, they’re headed for trouble. One experiment found that people who sleep six or fewer hours a night drastically underestimated how impaired they actually were. “After three days, they said they felt slightly less than optimal,” says Hans Van Dongen, a sleep specialist at the University of Pennsylvania. “After 14 days, they said roughly the same,” In reality, they scored just as poorly as those who had two days of zero sleep. Bill Clinton—who rarely got more than five hours a night during his presidency—once reportedly said, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

DECEPTION: THE ONLY WAY I CAN WORK OUT IS TO WAKE UP AN HOUR EARLY.
TRUTH:
That may be so, but those sit-ups could be less effective on your abs than staying in bed would he. Aside from the fact that a quarter of adults confess to eating more than usual following nights of inadequate rest, sleep deprivation also causes the brain to release more of the stress hormone cortisol, which encourages abdominal weight gain. And new research reveals that those who sleep for five hours a night have 15 percent less leptin (a hormone that suppresses appetite) and 15 percent more ghrelin (which increases hunger) than people who get eight hours. This means that skimping on sleep can increase your odds of gaining weight, says Shahrad Taheri, from the University of Bristol in Britain, who headed the study. In fact, scientists at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, recently determined that the less sleep people report getting regularly, the higher their body mass index tends to be. Although the findings don’t prove cause and effect, says professor of internal medicine Robert Vorona, they’re significant enough that he’s interested in studying dieters to see whether “by extending sleep, they have more success in losing weight,” Bottom line for now: Early workouts are fine—provided they’re paired with early bedtimes.

DECEPTION: I’M NOT TIRED YET.
TRUTH:
Is that you talking, or the Venti coffee you guzzled at 4 P.M.? Even a daytime dose of caffeine can keep you up at night, says Simon, because “the half-life of caffeine is about six hours.” That means if you drank a 20-ounce coffee at 3 P.M., 10 ounces would be coursing through your system at 9. Tea, chocolate, and pain relievers such as Excedrin, which contain smaller amounts of the chemical, can also keep you up, says Suzanne Griffin, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, as can cigarette smoke (even secondhand) and some decongestants. (After dark, avoid anything labeled “non-drowsy.”) Stimulants aside, most people experience a second wind in the evening—which is why you might have an urge to clean your closets or start firing off email, at 10 P.M. “Any intense activity at night, whether it’s physical or mental, can mask the cues of sleepiness, causing you to stay up longer than you should,” Kryger says. Instead, take a warm bath (the rise and subsequent fall in body temperature slows the heart and readies the body for sleep), dim the lights for an hour before shutting them off, and move the clock away from the bed to prevent constantly checking the time. And no, reclining in bed in front of the TV does not count as rest. “Television and especially ads are made to grab attention,” Simon says, “It typically makes people stay up later than they planned to.”

DECEPTION: SLEEPING TOO MUCH MAKES ME GROGGY AND SLUGGISH.
TRUTH:
You have a point. An especially long night’s rest can leave you feeling more bleary— but experts believe it’s nearly impossible to sleep too much, in fact, that morning fog may be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep in the first place. When the body is exhausted and has a chance to catch up, Simon says, “its alerting responses that would ordinarily rouse you in the morning turn off.” Hans Van Dungen also notes that “if you stay in bed for long enough, you get another period of deep sleep, which is difficult to wake up from.” And Tylenol PM or other old-school sleeping aids can limit the most restorative stages of sleep, making you feel less than refreshed the next morning. Newer pills, like Ambien, don’t appear to do this.

DECEPTION: A GLASS OF WINE WILL HELP ME FALL ASLEEP
TRUTH:
Shiraz certainly tastes better than Nytol, and one glass probably won’t hurt you. But two or three or five work much like a traditional sleeping pill, curtailing REM and slow-wave sleep for a foggy day after. Plus, while drinking might make you drowsy at first, the later drop in blood-alcohol level “has an opposite arousing effect,” Kryger says. This can result in a fitful second half of the night or an early awakening.

DECEPTION: RELAX, IT’S DECAF
TRUTH:
That innocent little cup is more potent than you think. For starters, your chance of getting true decaffeinated coffee in a restaurant may he as low as one out of three, according to a New York Times test several years ago. And even if you get what you ask for, “some brands still contain measurable amounts of caffeine—enough to make you a little jittery it you’re sensitive to it,” Griffin says. There’s also evidence that coffee (decaf and regular) may contain at least one unknown stimulant besides caffeine—so that even when caffeine is removed, the buzz could linger. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of placebos. Robert E. Thayer, psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, notes that while caffeine’s jolt takes about 45 minutes to reach its peak, most people feel more awake with the first few sips. “There’s a Pavlovian effect,” he says, “which is why decaf sometimes energizes to some extent.”
Sidebar: Coffee Stop

Even if you don’t cling to your morning espresso as if it were a life raft, you may be physiologically addicted to coffee, which can elevate the body’s levels of stress hormones. Withdrawal—even from a cup-a-day habit—can bring on headaches, crankiness, lack of concentration, and flulike symptoms. That said, the less you’re used to drinking, the less you’ll suffer. If you normally have only a cup or two, the symptoms should disappear within a week. Heavier drinkers who quit should expect at least two to three weeks of misery.

• Take it one day at a time. “Going cold turkey produces the greatest side effects,” says psychologist Bryan Raudenbush of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. Try cutting down by half a cup every two to three days.

• Seek a higher power. Though it may seem wholly unappealing at first, a quick morning workout can rev the body as well as a cappuccino. New York City nutritionist Oz Garcia suggests at least walking at a moderate pace for half an hour. “Any kind of mild exercise will get the oxygen circulating and increase energy,” he says. “Exposure to bright sunlight also helps combat sluggishness.”

• Find a substitute. A mint may do more than kill your coffee breath. “New studies show that inhaling peppermint affects the reticular activating system, which is primarily responsible for alertness in the body,” Raudenbush says. Also, chewing gum—an option instead of sipping late-afternoon coffee—is associated with improved mental performance.

Sidebar: Wake-up Lessons

Sometimes, even the best lie-down plans go to waste. After a late night, there are ways to perk up when you’re really yearning to crawl back in bed.

EAT EARLY
By the time you wake up, your body has been fasting for several hours, “so of course you’re going to feel sluggish and lethargic,” says nutrition coach Jackie Keller, founding director of Nutrifit, a nutritional health organization in Los Angeles. An ideal breakfast delivers about a quarter of your daily calories and combines complex carbohydrates (for an immediate boost), protein (for long-term energy), and a little fat (to sustain fullness)—for example, berries and low-fat yogurt with wheat germ and almonds. Resist refined carbohydrates, like doughnuts and croissants. “They cause your body to release too much insulin, so you’ll get a jolt of energy—then crash,” Keller warns.

EAT LIGHT
Heavy, fat-laden food “makes you feel weighed down, because the body has so much to digest,” says Joy Short, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University. Rather than eating a burger or pizza for lunch, choose a salad or half a pita with turkey or canned tuna, lettuce, and tomato. Then maintain year energy with a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts a few hours before dinner.

BEWARE THE BAR
True energy bars contain no hydrogenated fats, at least three grams of fiber, and a source of protein such as soy or peanut butter, says Keller, who advises against ones with more than 25 grams of sugar. If you’re on the run, a well-made bar is certainly a better choice than a cookie. “But just as good is a piece of sting cheese and an apple,” she says.

GET WIRED
Most sleep experts see nothing wrong with drinking an occasional cup of coffee. Garcia prefers green tea, which contains less caffeine than coffee and doesn’t overstimulate the secretion of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.