Myth and Truth About Sleep


1. Are Body-Contour Beds Better?

Many bedding companies claim that if you sleep on a special bed that adjusts to the contour of your body, you will sleep better and more deeply. As might be expected, these beds are far more expensive than regular beds.  When a research study was conducted on these contour beds, however, it was found that test subjects were not sleeping as comfortably or as deeply as they did on their regular beds. 

Tests using EEG (brain wave) monitoring and EMG (electromyography) during sleep found that sleepers naturally toss and turn during the night. When you sleep on a body-contour bed, however, your body is supported by the bed and is prevented from turning as easily as on a regular bed. Therefore, sleepers on contour beds tend not to toss or turn.

When you maintain the same sleep position for a long time, your body starts to suffer discomfort created by the pressure and heat that builds up on parts of your body. During natural sleep, by tossing and turning, the pressure and heat are dispersed -- your brain senses strain and heat and orders your body to turn over. Contour-bed sleepers do not turn, so the pressure and heat continues to build, and ends up interfering with sleep.  

Therefore, to the surprise of researchers, expensive body-contour beds were not as good as cheap regular beds for restful sleep.  


2. The Importance of Having the Right Pillow

Although contour beds are not necessary (and may actually be bad for) sleep, researchers did find that the position of the neck to the rest of the body is very important. As explained above, it is necessary for the body to toss and turn during sleep. Even when our bodies toss and turn, the neck bones and muscles must remain relaxed. This is where the importance of the pillow factors comes into good sleep.

The neck has seven bones that are supported by the inter-vertebral discs, tendons and muscles. If the neck remains bent in certain positions, it starts creating severe tension in the inter-vertebral spaces, the tendons and the muscles. Therefore, it is very important that the position of the neck to the rest of the body be maintained in such a way that the neck will not be bent at the wrong angles.

In order to find out the ideal neck position during sleep, scientists created a special high salt pool and let the experimental subjects to float on the salt water. They measured the angles and the position of the neck and the rest of the body as it turned around. They found out that the neck position versus the rest of the body should be about 15 degrees to the spine when lying on the backWhen lying on the side, the neck should be positioned to be straight versus the spine.

Through EEG, CAT, and EMG readings, researchers verified that when these positions (15 degrees to the spine when on your back and straight when lying on your side) are maintained during sleep, subjects slept more deeply and felt most refreshed when they woke up.  

The ideal pillow, based on these findings, should be moderately firm and have a thickness that creates the ideal angle of 15 degrees when sleeping on your back (or keeps the neck straight if you are a side-sleeper).

You can actually create your own pillow by starting with a medium-hard cushion of about 1.2  to 1.6 inches thick. Then place a large bath towel folded into a thickness of four to eight on top of it.  You can adjust the height of the pillow by changing the towel thickness.  Lie down on the pillow on your side, and adjust the towel thickness until the line from the top of your head to the spine is completely straight.  

When you sleep on this pillow, the angle of your neck to the body will be 15 degrees in the back position and, of course, straight on the sides!  
Now, you have an ideal pillow for you.  


3. Quantity vs. Quality of Sleep

Most people believe or are made to believe that we need about eight hours of sleep a day. This does not take into account the quality of sleep. Unfortunately, in our society today, we are almost fixated on quantity rather than quality. We apply this fixation to sleep and think that we need eight hours of sleep.

We humans are mammals (warm blood animals) and, as such, are under the influence of the sun. Wild animals go to sleep soon after sunset and wake up shortly before sunrise. This is what is known as Circadian rhythm. It is wise to take advantage of our biological nature than fighting against it.  

When I used to attend Sesshin (confrontation with own true nature) at a Zen temple, I had to get up at 3AM and go to bed at 9PM. This schedule is maintained all year round. Six hours of sleep was difficult in the beginning, especially starting at 9PM. After keeping up with this schedule for a few days, however, I felt very good and my body felt lighter. Obviously, Zen masters must have discovered this ideal rhythm through their centuries of experience.  

Research on sleep has confirmed that one hour of sleep before midnight is much more efficient than one hour sleep after midnight. The quality of sleep before midnight can be almost double of that after midnight. I have advised my college student patients to go to bed by 10PM and get up at 5AM and study while other people are sound asleep. When they stuck to this schedule, their grade point average went up significantly. Some even got straight A's and a few became Valedictorian!   

Due to our over-dependence on artificial lighting, we stupidly think we are winning over the night and our natures. When we defy nature, however, we eventually have to pay the price. Although not many of us can go to bed soon after sunset and get up before sunrise, we can, at least, try to follow nature as close as practicable.

If you cannot follow the Zen temple schedule, you can still learn from it and come up with a sleep schedule that works for you. That is why I advised college students to go to bed at 10PM and get up at 5AM because this turned out to be most practical for them in their environments. The important thing is to consider how much sleep you are getting before midnight versus after midnight.
One word of caution!  Once you set a schedule, you must try to stick to it and not deviate from it much. This way, you are setting up a steady rhythm for your body that will also optimize your physical and mental functions.


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