I know ... not another finger wagging about sleep! But this one is different, I promise.
If you’re still looking for the best way to get rid of those under-eye bags and avoid the 3pm slump, you’re not alone. Adulting is hard. It seems we’re forever chasing the tail of youth, which of course, makes us even more tired and stressed.
Add to that that we don’t get nearly enough credit for the work we do being grown-ups, right? Forget the fact that we’re a year into a global pandemic and some of us are stuck at home with screaming, psychotic children. (Angels, aren’t they?)
We do all the other grown-up stuff every single day—like taking out the trash and doing laundry and cooking and cleaning and paying taxes. We don’t just need beauty secrets ... we need all-around life secrets, eh?
Well, there’s good news and there's bad news.
Let’s start with the bummer first: No one has quite figured out the secret to life. The best we’ve got is from those scant few people who live to be 100+. And their advice typically goes something like this: love more, judge less, take the other stuff in stride. It usually sorts itself out. Eating chocolate and drinking wine aren’t indulgences; they’re survival toolkits for modernity. Use them regularly (but wisely, especially when operating a vehicle).
But there is good news, as promised. And it’s not all that “you’re already beautiful” stuff, because, of course you are. But under-eye bags are still jerks. Sluggish energy sucks. Pallid skin makes us loathe Zoom calls.
We don’t just have to accept these things at face value, though. We can absolutely change them.
And, yes, it all comes back to sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 35 percent of adults report getting inadequate sleep on a regular basis.
These short sleepers are more likely to be obese, physically inactive, and tobacco-users than those who do report enough sleep. They’re also more likely to report higher incidences of chronic illnesses including heart disease, arthritis, asthma, type-2 diabetes, depression, and even cancer.
I’m sure their kids and partners might add in some other issues, too, like lack of energy, short temper, and being forgetful. And that precious mirror-mirror on the wall may also have a thing or two to report back about who has the darkest eye circles of them all.
However—and that’s a big however—we might not need as much sleep as we’ve been taught to think.
(This is that different part I promised you.)
Paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, has studied human nature for decades and he’s learned a whole heck of a lot along the way. Lieberman has spent time with different groups of people around the world and compared their habits and their health with those of us cooped up in buildings for most of our days and nights.
According to Lieberman, so many of us are told we’re not getting enough sleep that we actually get so stressed about it,= that it has nearly the same effect as a lack of sleep. Most of us, he says, do get enough sleep.
And that number (the "right" amount) varies from person to person. What we do know is that it is most typically at least six hours. Anything less than that and signs of too little sleep both physically and mentally are fairly evident.
But the notion that we all need a perfect eight hours and not a minute less isn’t necessarily true.
“I used to say this to my students, that Thomas Edison robbed us of sleep. We invented electricity, and now we have iPhones and televisions and all these things that keep us up at night and that we didn't used to do. But it turns out that people who live in places where there is no electricity and there no iPhones and there's no TV ... turns out they don't sleep any more than the average American,” Lieberman said on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. “I think the number is 6.7 to 7.1 hours on average at night. And they often don't nap either, by the way, which is something we're also told. If you look at the data, there's no evidence that people [on average] sleep less today than they used to.”
So how do we know what’s best for us?
Chances are, you’ll just know, especially if you start to pay attention to your sleep schedule. Look at normal nights when you don’t stay up too late or drink a ton of coffee late in the afternoon. (Good sleep hygiene is fodder for another conversation.) How long can you sleep if there’s no alarm (or psychotic child) waking you up?
If you’re able to turn the alarm off and observe your natural sleep cycle, a pattern will likely soon emerge. For me, for example, seven to seven-and-a-half hours is my necessary normal. Anything less than that and I don’t have a great day. Anything much more than that and I also don’t have the best day.
Sleep does so much for the body. The rest allows for repairs to all areas, much of that caused by the normal stresses of living in a body. We also process a lot of our emotional stress in our dream cycles. And if we cut those short, the stress can linger, compound, and manifest in some really dangerous ways. This can certainly increase the skin yuck factor and it will also impact our energy levels.
Lieberman explains,“If you tell somebody they're not getting enough sleep and they actually are getting enough sleep, you just make them stressed ... that elevates cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that's about arousal. Cortisol prevents you from sleeping. And so we get into this kind of vicious circle.”
Of course, there are many factors, and our needs can change regularly, especially if we’ve been sick, traveling, excessively active, pregnant or nursing. As we age, our sleep needs change, too.
But don’t sweat the numbers.
That is, unless you’re consistently getting fewer than six hours a night. That’s not likely in your best interest, especially if you’re concerned about how your skin looks or how much energy you have the next day.
If you are getting consistently good-for-you sleep each night, then in about a month, take a good look in the mirror. Are those under eye bags or dark circles still a problem? Or are you too busy digging all that good sleep gunk out of your eye to even notice?
Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.