To learn how to sleep in a variety of circumstances, you have to at least understand its parameters. What makes the difference between a good night's sleep and a night of fitful wakefulness? I have experimented quite a bit with sleep and think I know what works, at least for me. It's a surprisingly complex topic, so I'm going to start with the basics for now. In future entries, we'll explore each requirement in detail.
This is what you seem to need for sound sleep…
1) Safety. Before you can comfortably attempt sleep, you have to be in an environment where you know you can be safe during your long period of unconsciousness. You have to be safe from predators, thieves, rapists and other threats to your life and health. This is both a matter of actually being safe and believing you are safe, so you don't lie awake in fear.There are many things not on the above list that some people regard as essential. For example, some people may think they need a certain kind of padding under them or a certain style of sheets. Largely, these are "invented needs," not real ones. The body is remarkably adaptable if you give it a chance. In fact, all around the world humans sleep in a wide variety of circumstances, from hammocks on the trees to shelved cut in the ice. The requirements above, however, seem to be universal.
2) Warmth. During sleep, your body slows down, so you need more insulation around you than you do during the day. This doesn't necessarily have to be active heating, just enough batting around you to retain your body's own heat.
3) A level sleeping platform. To sleep comfortably, all of you body has to be at about the same level—that is, lying down, although not necessarily flat. (Sometimes you can sleep in a curled up position.) While you can sleep in a chair, blood pools in your legs, making it uncomfortable and even dangerous to do for extended periods.
4) Padding beneath you. You can't sleep well on a hard surface but need a certain amount of padding below you. This distributes your body weight over a wider area. You don't necessarily need a water bed, but concrete won't do.
5) Fresh air! You need to be able to breathe at night. You can't sleep in a totally enclosed space.
6) Protection from rain and wind. You can't sleep in a downpour or a puddle, even if you are warm enough, but the main problem is that these elements rob you of heat.
7) Protection from insects. It's mainly the mosquito to worry about here. Just a couple of mosquitoes can keep you up all night, and a giant cockroach will do it as well!
8) Relative quiet. You can't easily sleep in a noisy environment, and it is a threat to your hearing even if you can. (Earplugs can solve this problem.)
9) Relative darkness. Even though your eyes are closed, you can't sleep in a very bright environment, because the light passes through you eyelids. (A sleep mask can solve this.)
10) Freedom from interruption. Once you go to sleep, you don't want to be woken from it, or the quality of the sleep will suffer.
11) The opportunity to turn or shift position. When the body is stationary for long periods, certain parts of the skin are placed under pressure, and eventually "bed sores" will develop. To combat this, your body knows to turn at regular intervals, perhaps a dozen times a night. Your sleeping arrangement has to account for this.
12) Opportunity to pee. This is somewhat negotiable, since you shouldn't have to urinate while you are sleeping, only before and after. (If you are waking up to do it, it usually means you are taking in too much liquid during the day, probably due to your caffeine addiction.)
13) Privacy. This is also negotiable, but you do need to know, for example, that your utterances while dreaming won't be recorded and used against you.
You may still be able to get SOME sleep even if all the requirements aren't met. For example, you may be able to sleep sitting up in an airplane on a long flight, but it probably won't be comfortable sleep that gets you through the whole next day. To sleep comfortably night after night, you'll probably need all of these elements.
The length of time required for sleep varies with the individual and the kind of lifestyle he leads, but seven hours a night seems common. Whether you need more or less seems to depend on the quality of sleep, especially during deep "REM" sleep when dreaming occurs. If your quality of sleep is poor, you may need more naps during the day to make up for it.
I believe you should sleep for as long as you want, without an alarm waking you up. If you wake up naturally, this is a good indication that your sleep needs have been met. If you force yourself to wake up, then you are probably cheating on those needs, and it is bound to work against you in some way.
Nonetheless, real world constraints and travel schedules often require you to waken before your body wants you to. Therefore, I would add an additional requirement for sound sleep…
14) A reliable alarm clock! If you aren't sure you'll wake up on time (to catch a flight, get to work, etc.) you won't sleep comfortably, so you have to know your alarm clock will work. (A cell phone alarm are fine, as long as you know it will work and successfully wake you.)Because the topic of sleep is a complicated one—and critical to homeless living—we'll go into some of the above requirements in more detail later in this blog.