It’s time to consider your performance in bed.

In the early days of Battlestar Galactica when the Colonial fleet was attempting to escape the Cylons, the crew survived (if you can call it that) on barely any sleep. Every time they jumped the fleet to a new location, those pesky Cylons would appear approximately 33 minutes later, forcing the fleet to jump away again. All this jumping around across space was hell on the crew, how found it impossible to get enough sleep. Stress and fatigue ensued.

Some of the actors in this episode threw themselves into the whole ‘method acting’ thing by restricting their own sleeping patterns to just 3 hours of sleep per night during filming to give them the appropriate level of believable sleep deprivation. A one point, Katee Sackhoff even fell asleep in a her cockpit while waiting to film the next sequence.

Thankfully, most of us don’t have to worry about a Cylon attack every 33 minutes, so we won’t have to worry about Cylon-induced-insomnia (yet). However, modern living can result in sleep deprivation that can change your behaviour and capabilities with eating, exercise and decision-making. Not getting enough food can lead to overeating, poor judgement and even hallucinations.

We spend lots of time sleeping (or trying to sleep) – but how much is enough sleep? How refreshing should it feel?

These are tough questions to answer as sleep is a complex and delicate balance of physiological processes occurring in sleep and while we are awake. There are many fascinating changes in the body and mind during sleep that has consequences for how we feel when we are awake. Likewise, food, exercise, medication, medical conditions, and, mental health can all impact on the mechanisms of sleep. There are many things that can go right and wrong which can make it tough to tease out how they all impact on you ability to get enough quality sleep.

However, the most telling symptom is your level of tiredness.

If you feel persistently tired, it is likely there is something that is negatively impacting on your sleep quantity, quality or rhythm – or there is something occurring in your body or mind while you are awake that is wearing you down. It my seem obvious, but humans can be quite stubborn when it comes to identifying a problem and then refusing to act on it. For a more refined analysis, there are three main domains to evaluate sleep: quantity, quality and rhythm.

Sleep Quantity

It is recommended that you have 6.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night – not including everything else you do in bed such as just resting awake, having sexy times, winding down or being in the process of falling asleep. For many people, 6.5 to 8 hours seems like a lot. Sleep has to compete with other needs in our fast-paced, must-update, LOLcats world. If you have many competing priorities, give some extra priority to getting enough sleep as it will help you perform better when you are awake. Just an extra hour each day can take you from being a mediocre (and kinda suicidal) Viper pilot like BB Baxton, to being a hot shot kick ass (and kinda suicidal) Viper pilot like Starbuck.

The ideal amount of sleep varies between people and reduces as you grow older and wiser. A simple guide is how refreshed you feel when you wake, as well as how alert you feel during the day. If you never feel refreshed when you wake, or never feel alert, or worse – are slumping at your controls all the time then you should seek professional help. Or at least stop driving heavy machinery, Vipers, and/or large spacecraft.

Sleep Quality

Sleepy quality is just as important as sleep quantity.

High levels of stress, drugs, stims, a bad diet, alcohol consumption and obesity can lower the quality of sleep you achieve. Sleep disorders such as periodic limb movements and obstructivesleep apnoea are characterised by frequent micro-awakenings that activate the brain, but not enough so you actually remember waking up. In the world of sleep research, these are known as brief “awakenings”.

If you are constantly falling in and out of sleep during the night the no amount of extra hours of sleep will be enough – you need to deal with the underlying problem or you will always have poor quality sleep. It can be difficult to find and treat the cause of these sleeping problems, and it is difficult to improve sleep quality. However, the good news is that there are plenty of resources you can use these days to find help.

Sleep Rhythm

Aside from quantity and quality, there is your sleep grove – the regularity and timing of your sleep.

The typical sleep/wake rhthm is slightly longer than 24 hours, but it is “entrained” to our Earthly day/night cycle by factors within the body and in our environment. These triggers include:

  • exercise
  • eating
  • activity levels
  • activity around you from other people
  • hormones
  • exposure to light, and/or the colour of light you are exposed to

Light is one of the most powerful “exogenous entrainment” factors that can impact on your sleep – a few minutes from looking at a phone, computer screen or accursed iPad in bed can delay your sleep phase and natural feelings of sleepiness.

It is also important to go to sleep, and wake again at roughly the same time of each day. Too much change to your sleeping routines in short amount of time will give you the same effect as jet lag, which is a common problem for shift workers.

In the world of medical science, we have many fun tools to assess sleep – polysomnography, phenotyping, questionnaires, accelerometers and behavioural scales. However some of these fancy technologies and techniques are now available to the public, and are based on the same principles as the clinical tools. Here are some examples:

Keep in mind though, these commercial apps and devices are more for measuring sleep quantity and sleep rhythm – there is little evidence for using these to assess sleep quality.

If you think you might be suffering from sleep deprivation, it may also be informative to have a look at questionnaires like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Contemplating you sleep behaviour and sleep quantity, quality and rhythms is a great place to start if you want to set off on a path to better health. Improving your sleep hygiene can eliminate possible causes of sleepiness, and with the extra energy you will have you can improve other areas of your health and possibly even save humanity from an interstellar war of some kind.

So this year, rather than resolving to do something vague and/or unrealistic for your New Year’s resolutions, give some thought to getting a little more shut eye instead.

For more information about improving your sleep, see your pharmacists or General Practitioner. Or for some more regional links:

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