What You Need to Know About Sleep

“Sleep is the universal health care provider: whatever the physical or mental ailment, sleep has a prescription it can dispense.”

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Are you getting enough sleep? Do you pride yourself in how little you can get by with? Are you consuming copious amounts of caffeine just to make it through the day? Do you view sleep as a necessary evil, an interruption to your overloaded life?

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting enough sleep, and this is creating some serious problems.

In his excellent book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker writes,

“Within the space of a mere hundred years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep – one that evolution spent 3,400,000 years perfecting in service of life-support functions. As a result, the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity, and the education of our children.
This silent sleep loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations. If we wish to avoid the suffocating noose of sleep neglect, the premature death it inflicts, and the sickening health it invites, a radical shift in our personal, cultural, professional, and and societal appreciation of sleep must occur.
I believe it is time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the damaging stigma of laziness. In doing so, we can be reunited with that most powerful elixir of wellness and vitality, dispensed through every conceivable biological pathway. Then we may remember what it feels like to be truly awake during the day, infused with the very deepest plentitude of being.”

I get it. Sleep is almost an afterthought for most of us, even though it makes up around a third of our lives.

We view sleep as an enemy to fight, an unpleasant task to procrastinate, or even a sign of weakness. Anything but a gift – a joy – a blessing from God.

“It is useless for you to work so hard from early morning until late at night, anxiously working for food to eat; for God gives rest to his loved ones.” Psalm 127:2

The nonstop productivity and play afforded by technology only exacerbate the issue. We can now work anytime, anywhere. Entertainment has never been so entertaining. Netflix knows who their real competition is, which is why their CEO has said, “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep. And we’re winning!”

Wow. Think about that. We are trading quality of life for quantity of shows. Is it worth it? What is this doing to us over the long haul?

Before we examine the detrimental effects of sleep loss, I think it’s helpful to understand how sleep actually works. If this is incredibly boring to you, feel free to skip it. But I for one find it fascinating.

The Science of Sleep

When we wake, adenosine (Process-S) starts building up in our brains, gradually increasing our levels of exhaustion. When we sleep, it begins depleting until morning. At the same time, our circadian rhythm (Process-C) is going through an ebb and flow, influencing how alert we are. Ideally, we want to wake when Process-C is rising and Process-S is falling, and sleep when Process-C is falling and Process-S is rising.

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During the night, we experience both REM sleep (rapid eye movement/dreaming), and NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement/non-dreaming).

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Walker writes, “When it comes to information processing, think of the wake state principally as reception (experiencing and constantly learning the world around you), NREM sleep as reflection (storing and strengthening those raw ingredients of facts and skills), and REM sleep as integration (interconnecting these raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works, including innovative insights and problem-solving abilities).”

The Benefits of NREM Sleep

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NREM sleep helps you consolidate, store, and cement your memories, which in turn enhances learning. It moves information from your short term memory to your long term memory. It performs a power wash of toxic waste in your brain, getting you ready for a new day by freeing up more space for new information. It protects you from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It calms your sympathetic fight or flight response, helping you wake up calm, refreshed, and ready to go.

The Benefits of REM Sleep

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REM sleep (dreaming) helps you creatively bridge your past experiences and knowledge into new insights. It helps you solve difficult problems and find creative solutions. It builds emotional intelligence and helps you become more emotionally stable. It makes you less prone to pursuing dopamine seeking addictive behaviors. It provides a kind of free nightly therapy, shutting down norepinephrine (the stress chemical), and enabling your subconscious to process all the negative emotions from the day. Dreaming takes the pain out of painful experiences so you can wake up happier and more resilient.

The Consequences of Inadequate Sleep

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  • Inadequate sleep is a setup for mental illness. “There is no major psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal. This is true of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.”
  • Inadequate sleep lowers your IQ and EQ. The longer you go with too little sleep, the more harmful the effects become, and the less you notice them because you’ve become acclimated to them. “Neither naps nor caffeine can salvage more complex functions of the brain, including learning, memory, emotional stability, complex reasoning, or decision-making. When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don’t.”
  • Inadequate sleep jacks up your hormones and leads to weight gain. It decreases leptin (feeling full) and increases ghrelin (feeling hungry). It makes you crave the worse kinds of food, lowers your willpower to resist them, reduces your desire to exercise, and makes it harder to gain muscle.
  • Inadequate sleep weakens your immune system, increasing your likelihood of getting sick.
  • Inadequate sleep impairs athletic performance, increases your odds of injury, and prolongs recovery time.
  • Inadequate sleep shortens your lifespan and makes you look older.

Basically, not getting enough sleep makes you less human and less healthy.

How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep

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How much sleep do you need?

Everyone’s different, but Walker recommends getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. Out of curiosity, I began tracking my own sleep patterns – logging the quantity and quality as well as how I felt throughout the day. I learned that my body actually needs about 8 1/2 hours, and I’d only been getting 7.

Walker’s top 12 sleep tips (paraphrased):

  1. Regular bedtime and rise time. Alarms for both.
  2. Exercise, but not too close to bed.
  3. Limit caffeine consumption to the mornings, as the effects can take up to 8 hours to wear off.
  4. Avoid alcohol before bed.
  5. Avoid large meals and drinks before bed.
  6. Watch out for sleep disrupting medicines [sleeping pills are not your friend; see his book for more].
  7. No napping after 3pm.
  8. Have a relaxing ritual that helps you wind down before bed.
  9. Take a hot bath before bed to help you cool down (after getting out) and get ready for sleep.
  10. Sleep in a dark, cool, and gadget-free bedroom.
  11. Get regular sunlight exposure, especially in the mornings.
  12. Don’t lie awake in bed for more than 20 minutes – get up and do something relaxing, then get back in bed.

Supplements can help as well. I currently take kava kava, valerian root, passion flower extract, magnesium, and tart cherry concentrate about an hour before bed to help nudge me in that direction.

Want More?

  • Read Why We Sleep
  • Watch an interview on the Joe Rogan show: