After years of tortured sleep with a snorer (aka my husband), I finally convinced him to get a sleep study. The night of his test, he bombarded me with angry texts, complete with a selfie showing dozens of wires attached to his head and torso. So when he sent me off with a slightly vengeful smile to New York University Langone's Sleep Disorders Center for my own study, I wasn't exactly expecting a good night's rest. As I sat patiently on the bed, taking notes and checking e-mails, waiting for my turn to get wired up (all five rooms in the sleep center were booked that night), Boris, one of the two technicians on duty, scolded me: "You should be doing all that in the chair—not your bed!"
As Jessica, the other technician, swabbed my skin and attached sensors to my head, neck, torso, and legs, I actually felt relaxed. (After all, hypochondriacs feel safe in medical centers!) After 20 minutes, I was fully hooked to what looked like a remote control. My brain waves, breathing, heart rate, and eye, jaw, and leg movements would all be tracked throughout the night via the remote, which was connected to a main control center where all five of us would be monitored by Jessica and Boris. When I was ready for bed, Jessica put one last wire up my nose, and I turned out the lights and prayed I wouldn't have to get up to go to the bathroom.
I fell asleep easily but didn't stay that way very long; around 2 a.m. the wire fell out of my nose, and Jessica had to come in and reposition it. How is anyone supposed to sleep all wired up, anyway? Turns out you don't need a long stretch to detect a breathing disorder like sleep apnea—the reason for 80 percent of sleep studies, says David Rapoport, M.D., director of NYU Langone's sleep medicine program. The good news is that I don't have apnea.
But I did go into deep sleep pretty quickly, which, according to Rapoport, suggests that I'm sleep-deprived. (Take that, husband who's critical of my "I need 8 hours of sleep" claim!) "The amount of sleep each person needs is individual," Rapoport says. "The key is: How do you feel the next day? However many hours you need to feel well-rested is the amount you need. For most people, that's between seven and eight hours, but for a rare few it could be six."
Now, back to my sleep deprivation problem. Can you make up for lost sleep? Rapoport says yes: "Sleep debt is like a mortgage; you can borrow, but you have to pay it back." Experts say it's best to do that by going to bed earlier— not by sleeping in. "Waking up at the same time resets your body's circadian rhythm," says sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D. For two or three nights after you've stayed up late, go to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual. Because I'm not one of those rare few who needs just six, I'll be turning in early tonight.
CAFFEINE: Because it lasts 8–10 hours in your body, your cutoff is 2 p.m. Also watch out for drinks with the stimulants guarana and ginseng.
ALCOHOL: It keeps you out of the deeper stages of sleep. Your last drink should be 3 hours before bed.
WAKE-UP TIME: Inconsistency here upsets your body's sleep pattern. Better to get up at the same time -- even on weekends.