Adults need between seven and nine hours a night for optimal performance and health, but the CDC says at least 35 percent of us fall short of that mark.


The arrival of winter brings cold weather, shorter days and for most people a decreased exposure to sunlight. Rising before the sun and returning from work in darkness is not uncommon. In Montana’s mountain towns, societal emphasis on productivity coupled with the arrival of ski season can turn “burning the candle at both ends” into a vicious cycle.

Sleep is a critical part of the human experience, and most of us don’t get enough of it.

On average, adults need between seven and nine hours a night for optimal performance and health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, the CDC says, at least 35 percent of us fall short of that mark. In Montana, that number drops down to 30 percent, which experts say could be related to lower levels of light pollution and higher latitude, among other factors. What remains still is how we sleep.

Nearly every night from cradle to grave we enter into our subconscious; our breathing and blood pressure slow and our bodies become predominantly motionless. This lack of movement, however, is largely contrasted by the complex and essential activities occurring in our brains.

As it turns out, a lot happens while we snooze. In fact, says Cara Palmer, director of the Sleep and Development Lab at Montana State University, our brains are just as active when we sleep as when we’re awake. “There is a misconception that we’re almost lifeless while we sleep,” she says.

Palmer is working on a number of studies to help better understand sleep issues, specifically in Montana. “Once we have a better idea of the types of sleep problems faced by Montanans and potential causes of these sleep disturbances, we will be able to better design interventions to target these issues directly,” she says.

This research is important for a number of reasons, including the role sleep plays in brain health. During our slumber, we gather and store memories away to make room for new information, all while balancing hormone levels and mood. While the body lies dormant, the brain alters its behavior and priorities. It functions as a washing machine clearing out the junk that has accumulated over the course of the day and recalibrating the immune system to battle disease. In essence, we’re recharging. But when we don’t get the appropriate number of Z’s, problems arise.

Natalie Bryant, a sleep and dream coach based in Arizona, has been researching the role of sleep in memory processing in adulthood and adolescence. Specifically, she studies the importance of sleep during those transformative adolescent years, the time period ranging from 13-19, when 85 percent of teens report getting less sleep than the national average, according to Bryant.

“If you’re sleep deprived you actually aren’t able to pay attention, which is seen a lot in adolescents because of early start times in schools,” Bryant says. “The process by which teens take in information about the world becomes compromised because their brains are too full of information from the day before.”

Sleep and dream coach Natalie Bryant.

Bryant speculates that differences in the average amount of sleep people get may be attributed to variables related to their geographic location.

“These factors include depression rates, physical activity and nutrition, socioeconomic status and travel time to places of employment,” she says. One large piece of the puzzle may be latitude, which affects amount of daylight, or as Bryant says, light-dark cycles.

On the longest day of the summer, Montanans soak up 15:40 hours of daylight, according to weather and light-measuring website Now, compare that to only 8:19 hours on the shortest day of winter. Montana’s northern latitude and its toe-numbingly long winters can have both positive and negative effects on sleep.

The upside of these long, cold winter nights is that the extended hours and chilly temps are optimal conditions for quality sleep. The trouble is that few people adjust their routines to take advantage of it. During seasonal changes of light and dark cycles, our circadian rhythms, those internal processes that regulate the sleep-wake cycle over the course of 24 hours, adjust to accommodate for this shift.

“We are influenced by the light in our environment telling us when to sleep,” Palmer notes. “If you are in a place like Montana, it’s important to find ways to make sure you’re not confusing your biological clock.”

If you have to get up before the sun, one way to make it easier on your body is to use “daylight bulbs” that mimic natural light and gradually pull you from your slumber. Equally important to focusing on how you wake up, is making sure your evening sleep routine is regulated. Bryant says that increased exposure to blue light, the type emulated from smartphones and televisions, can delay the release of melatonin.

“Cortisol is very closely tied to the sleep-wake cycle,” Bryant says. “When we are about to go to sleep our cortisol is low, allowing melatonin to lull us to sleep. Electronics like video games increase cortisol and decrease melatonin, making it difficult for the brain to wind down and prepare for sleep.”

Bryant suggests abstaining from screen time for 30 minutes prior to bedtime in order to allow the body to slow down naturally and prepare for sleep. You may have to answer that email in the morning, but you’ll sleep better.

One of the most interesting things about sleep, says Palmer, is a lack of measurable data. Through several new studies in conjunction with MSU’s Sleep Lab, Palmer is trying to shed some light on the physical and mental health risks associated with disordered sleeping. “It’s amazing how little we know about sleep, even though we will spend our whole lives doing it,” she says. “Especially here in Montana, there is very little research being done on it. I’m hoping to change that.”

What we do know is that most people are not getting enough shut-eye. This winter it’s time to slow down, reset and reconnect with your natural circadian rhythm. Your body and mind will thank you.

Sophie Tsairis is a Bozeman, Montana-based freelance environmental journalist and writer who often burns the candle at both ends in an effort to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Recently, however, she’s attempting to prioritize sleep.