Who knows about sleep? Astronauts.
They have to. Their bodies are cut off from many of the normal external cues that remind us what time it is.
But actually, it’s even worse than that.
In orbit they can experience a dozen sunrises and sunsets a day which makes their circadian rhythm go completely haywire.
When you’re in a tin can floating through the cold darkness of outer space, being off your game due to lousy sleep can have very bad results.
When sleep deprivation has you so messed up you don’t notice you’re taking photos of the walls instead of Earth, yeah, that could present a problem.
So NASA started doing some serious research.
3 Big Insights On Sleep
They quickly realized a few things:
1) You’re a slave to external cues
Without light, darkness and other contextual signals, your ability to regulate sleep times can be a mess.
2) Your body doesn’t naturally stay on a 24hr cycle
Without something to rein it in, you’ll work off a 25.4 hour day. This drift compounds and eventually your sleep cycle can totally spin out of control.
3) You’re not very good at judging sleep quality
You may think sleeping with the lights on doesn’t affect you, but it does. And you won’t necessarily notice your reduced performance the next day, either.
This info is more valuable than you think. Why?
We’re All Astronauts Now
As John Durant points out in his fascinating new book, The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, due to modern technology, we’re all living more like astronauts now.
Maybe you think this doesn’t affect you — or at least not much.
You’re wrong. Remember #3 above.
Research done on non-astronauts has shown the same thing. After 2 weeks of 6 hours of sleep a night, you’re legally drunk:
But what did the chronically sleep deprived say when asked how they felt? “It’s not affecting me.”
Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.
So if you are having reduced performance due to sleep issues, you may not be aware. This is a problem.
So what answers did NASA come up with?
What You Need To Do
Given you probably don’t have to deal with the thruster jets of Skylab waking you up or the sounds of the hull of your ship expanding and contracting, I’ve edited the recommendations down to four points:
- Maintain a consistent schedule, even on weekends. Keep in mind the “free-running” problem. Your body will push later if given the chance.
- Take an hour to wind down before bed. Yes, you’re busy. But your time is not more precious than an astronaut’s. So take the time to wind down.
- If you don’t have strong day/night cues, add them. Get sunlight in the morning. Dim the lights at night. Turn electronics off as bedtime approaches or use an application like f.lux.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool and free from noise. Even if you think “the light doesn’t bother you” or “the noise isn’t that bad” it can still reduce sleep quality.
Durant offers another solid piece of advice I follow myself: forget the alarm clock in the morning; set an alarm to remind you to go to bed at night.
This prevents you from cheating yourself on sleep and allows you to wake up naturally.
(Even if “naturally” happens to be on the surface of the moon.)
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.