Given its importance and the fact that we will spend about a third of our lives doing it, it’s funny that scientists still aren’t entirely certain why we sleep. There are many theories: sleep aids in memory consolidation and brain rewiring, cleans waste products out of the brain, allows us to conserve energy and stay safe at night, or promotes tissue repair and regeneration. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these. What’s clear is that we feel terrible without it: lack of sleep negatively affects judgement and learning, impairs our memory, and can eventually lead to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and reduced life expectancy. (1) The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults aged 18-64. (2)
Yet on average, we aren’t getting nearly enough sleep. A 2013 Gallup poll found that Americans sleep 6.8 hours on average, down an hour from 1942. 40% of people sleep less than than 7 hours. (3) The picture is even worse when you consider that these figures come from self reports, not lab results, and that people typically overestimate how much they sleep. With problems ranging from shift work to electronic distractions to light and noise pollution, modern society does not place enough emphasis on sleep.
There are things you can do to increase your sleep time and quality:
Keep a regular bedtime and wakeup time. Don’t drastically change these on the weekends in order to party.
Avoid long naps during the day. Limit yourself to 30-45 minutes.
Exercise regularly, but during the morning or afternoon. Avoid rigorous exercise 1-2 hours before bed.
Get enough exposure to natural light during the day. Natural light helps synchronize the brain’s clock and maintain healthy sleep-wake cycles.
Limit your light exposure right before bed. Start turning off lights 30-60 minutes before bed. Use a red light, from either a headlamp or red light bulb, to navigate at night; red light interferes less with sleep than the blue light emitted by computer screens and other electronic devices.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine and excess alcohol close to bedtime. Alcohol can help you initially fall asleep but can wake you up in the middle of the night.
High altitudes, such as those in the Peruvian Andes, can interfere with sleep. Being at altitude causes a natural nighttime decrease in breathing rate, something even stopping it momentarily. This can cause constant interruptions in your sleep, reducing your overall rest. Altitude medications such as Diamox (acetazolamide) can help with this, making for better sleep. For a few days after arrival, it’s best to eat lightly and avoid alcohol.
Travel and Healing offers a number of multiday backcountry trips. Night time activities are centered around the campfire, and hikers typically turn in early. These treks are perfect for tiring you out with exercise during the day and giving you a tranquil environment to rest in at night. The campsites are remote and free of light pollution, allowing your circadian rhythms to reset themselves. And of course there is nowhere to plug in your electronic devices, making it hard to distract yourself with gadgets. Come join us on a backcountry hiking adventure and fall asleep beneath the stars!