“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” How many times have you heard someone say that?
It makes it sound like sleep is just an option we choose from the menu and not a hardcore necessity of life. So which is it?
Something that’s nice to have a lot of, but getting by on the bare minimum is a-ok?
Or should we learn how to sleep faster?
Or do we absolutely NEED full nights of quality sleep?
Let’s take a look shall we?
So, in this article, we’ll explore:
· Importance of sleep (hint: we talk about REM & non-REM)
· What happens if we don’t sleep (the effects to both body & mind)
· Knowing if we are (or aren’t) getting enough sleep (signs of zombie-ism…it’s a word)
· Tips on achieving better sleep (the title may say 12, but there’s a bonus 1!)
And hey if you don’t want to read the whole article, but just want a better night’s sleep, then just jump down to the 12 Tips on Improving Sleep. And if you simply want to know if you can catch up or sleep, or bank it, as they say, check out the first paragraph under What Happens When We Don’t Sleep?
Why is Sleep Important?
I’m sure by now you have heard sleep is very important to our overall health, but why is that? Without sleep, our bodies and minds do not have the ability to function properly on a daily basis. Without sleep, we cannot concentrate, regulate our hormones, fight off the common cold, or prevent cancer cells from taking over. So, yeah I’d say sleep is important, even a matter of life and death.
Human sleep is divided into two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM) sleep. These two types of sleep compete for supremacy in cycles of 90 minutes all through the night.
REM sleep is our dreaming sleep and can be subdivided into phasic and tonic REM sleep, with phasic having multiple bursts of very rapid eye movement.
Non-REM is our deep sleep (or slow wave) and has four stages, appropriately named Stages 1-4, with 3 and 4 being the deepest. Non-REM sleep is what allows our minds to fixate new memories, while REM connects them together. Nice how they work together so well.
Since Non-REM is our deep sleep, it has the ability to recalculate our cardiovascular system and keep blood pressure at optimum levels. It’s actually considered the most natural blood pressure “medicine”. Pretty cool huh?!
Sleep is so important that just the hour lost from the time change in the spring, as a result of Daylight Saving Time, causes a 24% increase (yes, this is where we say OMG!) in heart attacks in the populations affected by the change. And when we “fall back” come autumn, we decrease our risk. Crazy how that works.
Our hormones are kept in balance with non-REM sleep, including those involved with appetite. That’s why when we have been shorted on sleep we tend to overeat the next day, especially on carb heavy foods. Metabolic hormones such insulin are also affected, and therefore, so is glucose regulation. Non-REM sleep is was refreshes our immune system. This affects the body’s ability to fight inflammation, sickness, and disease.
Related: Insulin Resistance and weight loss
What Happens When We Don’t Sleep?
Let’s start this section off answering the question I know everyone will ask. No, you cannot make up for sleep that has already been lost by trying to sleep in on other days. Once sleep is lost, it’s gone. And changing up your sleep cycle by sleeping in can really disrupt your body’s total sleep pattern.
Alright, onto what happens when the sandman doesn’t show.
Concentration and focus takes a hit when we lose a night of sleep. Just 20 hours of no sleep puts us in such a hole that we are as bad off as if we were legally drunk. We have impaired decision making skills and we become downright forgetful and less creative. Not too good if you are looking for a productive day at work.
Our mood is also heavily affected by the amount of sleep we get. When we lose a night of sleep our moods will swing unpredictably and handling even the simplest of situations becomes an unmanageable challenge. When we have lost a good night’s sleep we can be sure the next will be a wild ride on the emotional rollercoaster.
Even if we don’t lose a whole night’s sleep, but only get about 4 hours, our bodies still take a hit. Our natural killer cells (cells that fight cancer) plummet by 70%.
The link between lack of sleep and cancer is so prolific that the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen. Yikes!-
Lack of sleep also makes it more difficult for our bodies to fight viruses, so much so that you are up to 5 times more likely to catch a cold if you are only getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. This comes into play even with vaccines. For example, if you were to get a flu vaccine while suffering from a lack of sleep, you would only produce about 50% of the antibodies, which is pretty useless in the scheme of vaccines.
No, you cannot make up for sleep that has already been lost by trying to sleep in on other days. Once sleep is lost, it’s gone
Matthew Walker Ph.D
Another hit the body takes is that glucose regulation is severely compromised. If we went a full week with impaired sleep our glucose levels would be so high we would be classified as pre-diabetic. And if we went through most of our life existing on only 5-6 hours a sleep a night, we are 200% more likely to be diabetic!
Just as a lifetime of poor sleep can lead to diabetes, it can also lead to cognitive impairment as we age. Those that regularly sleep less than 6 hours a night have much higher toxic beta amyloid buildup in the brain. Poor sleep throughout our life, especially in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. So while we may think of Alzheimer’s as an “old person’s” diseases, it is something that begins in our 30’s.
Are You Sleeping Enough…?
….or are you going through life as a zombie? Ok, so now you know how not sleeping can be a detriment to your health, but what are the signs that you haven’t had enough sleep? Obviously, if you know you were awake all night and sleep just wouldn’t come, you definitively know you didn’t get enough sleep. But what if you slept, but maybe didn’t get enough deep sleep to repair your body and mind? This is information to be aware of so you know if your body and mind need a little help getting the rest they need.
Check out the following signs that may suggest you are not sleeping well enough or long enough at night and perhaps turning into the walking dead.
1. Your alarm wakes you up and you feel that without it you would have just kept sleeping
2. You suffer from inattentiveness and lack of awareness
3. You drink lots and lots of coffee (or any caffeine) just to stay awake
4. You can barely drag your butt through your workout
Any of those sounds familiar? Yes? Then zombie-ism is in your near future, unless you heed the advice below and get your sleep on the straight and narrow.
12 Tips on Improving Sleep (plus a bonus one)
So you figured out you are showing the aforementioned signs of sleep deprivation (aka zombie-ism) or simply know you aren’t getting a full 8-9 hours of sleep a night, So what’s a person to do when you want to fall asleep instantly?
Here are 12 tips (plus 1) to help us all ride the dream train tonight, and every night.
1. Say no to drugs (at least the sleep-inducing kind): Sleep drugs do NOT produce natural sleep. They are what are called Sedative-Hypnotics. So they sedate you, they don’t give that magic we call sleep. What they do is knock out your cortex. So while you may be out, you are not experiencing natural sleep. The odd (or perhaps scary) thing is, is that those doctors prescribing sleeping medications aren’t sleep experts in most cases. They have had at most, about 2 hours of sleep education. Hardly what I call an expert on something we spend over 1/3 of our lives doing. Another scary fact is that those taking all those sleep meds the doctors are haphazardly prescribing have significantly higher rates of death and cancer. I’m guessing that’s not something any of us want. It does need to be said though that it has not been determined if the relationship between those taking the sleep meds and the higher rates of death and cancer are casual or associational. It may be the meds or it may be from other factors because those folks aren’t getting proper sleep in the first place.
2. Try some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI): CBTI is a structured program that helps identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep. So basically you work with a trained therapists to replace harmful sleep habits with positive ones. Once you have learned these habits you take what you have learned and practice it until sleep is something that comes naturally. The great thing about CBTI is that is has the same positive benefits the drugs can offer (more sleep), but continues after you stop sessions with your therapists. And unlike drugs, there is no withdrawal. This is important because those that take sleeping medications are far worse off when they stop taking the meds than when they started. They suffer from what is called, rebound insomnia, and so the whole point is pretty much defeated. CBTI helps us overcome the underlying causes of our sleep problems. It’s like learning to fish instead of being given a fish.
3. Stay regular: Um, no I don’t mean the fiber kind of regular (although that helps too). What I mean is that when it comes to going to bed and waking up, stick with a regular routine. Simply go to bed and wake up at pretty much the same time every day. And definitely don’t sleep late, this is most harmful in screwing up your sleep cycle.
4. Keep your bedroom at 65°F: Our brains need to drop their core temperatures by 2-3° to initiate sleep. Whoa, who knew?! Plus, you will get more non-REM sleep in a colder room. Stay chilly my friends!
5. Take a hot bath: This isn’t to get all cozy, but instead to dissipate heat. By bringing the blood to the surface of our bodies, and away from our cores, we will sleep much better.
6. Wear blue blocking glasses and dim your lights once the sun goes down: Blue blocking glasses will help block artificial light from things such as TV’s and computers and dimming the lights makes a more natural nighttime setting. Blocking artificial light and mimicking natural nighttime light can boost your melatonin by 50%. Melatonin is an important hormone because it starts to rise in the mid-to-late evening (when sunlight is low) and stays elevated for most of the night (when it’s dark). Then, levels drop when the sun starts to come up again. So using the glasses and dimming the lights can keep your circadian rhythm humming along like it is supposed to.
7. If you can’t sleep after 30-40 minutes, don’t stay in bed: When you find you have gone to bed but cannot fall asleep, get up, go to a different room, and read a book or just simply relax until you get sleepy. Don’t use any electronics or eat though. These will make falling asleep worse.
8. Build up your Adenosine – Limit your caffeine: Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that regulates some of our brain’s sleep cycle. After 16 hours of wakefulness, we build up quite a bit of adenosine, and that makes us sleepy. When we consume caffeine it competes with adenosine for receptor sites, essentially pushing the mute button on adenosine. So, while we are actually building up adenosine, our bodies have no idea. And the tricky thing about caffeine is that it has an average half-life of 6 hours, which means ¼ of the caffeine we consumed is still racing through our systems even after 12 hours. For those that can consume caffeine and have no trouble falling asleep, they are still more likely to experience less Stage 3 & 4 non-REM sleep. So don’t think anyone is escaping caffeine’s effects.
9. Alcohol is NOT a sleep aid: (bummer right?) It’s a sedative (just like the sleep drugs we talked about earlier). All it will do is help us fall into a lightened unconsciousness. It fragments our sleep, meaning we will wake several times throughout the night, rarely remember that, and then no doubt feel the lack of sleep the next morning. This type of sleep, even if we have over 6 hours of it, is no better than a sober night of no sleep. Plus, alcohol blocks our REM sleep (which if this occurs often enough can lead to psychosis). And don’t think you have to drink the bar dry to suffer these consequences. Even a couple glasses of wine at night can cause this disruption.
Note: marijuana can help you fall asleep faster, but it also blocks your REM sleep. Studies on CDB are not conclusive. Just in case you were wondering.
10. Naps: Yes indeed, but within limits. Naps can give us the many benefits that a great night of sleep can. For a quick refresher to help improve focus, alertness, and concentration, all we need is a quick 20 minutes. For restoration of the body’s systems, then 40-45 minutes is what is needed. Longer nap times will drop into the non-REM sleep and offer us additional benefits, but will take us longer to get up and running to full alertness.
When choosing to nap there are some things we can do to make it as beneficial as possible and not have them interfere with our nightly rest.
Place naps about 8 hours before the time you plan to go to bed that evening.
If you can, get into a regular nap cycle, as this can improve overall health.
Using naps to get in some extra z’s falls into the biphasic way of sleeping. Typically our societies dictate we sleep monophasically, meaning one large bout of sleep from night until morning. However, our bodies are more adept to sleeping 6ish hours a night and then taking a longer afternoon nap when that postprandial afternoon dip occurs. If we could do this in our society, then we could be healthier overall.
11. Melatonin is great for when you are traveling time zones: Because melatonin’s job is to start our sleep process, it is useful if we are suffering from jetlag or disruptions in our body’s clock. Typically nightly use of melatonin is not effective. However, if you think it works for you, there are no real downsides to it, so go for it.
12. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS): The future is now! tDCS is a form of neurostimulation (also known as neuromodulation) where very low levels of constant current are delivered to specifically targeted areas of the brain. tDCS was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries (such as strokes), however, tests on healthy adults demonstrated that tDCS can increase cognitive performance on a variety of tasks, depending on the area of the brain being stimulated. Studies have shown that tDCS has the ability to enhance language and mathematical ability, attention span, problem-solving, memory, and coordination. In addition, tDCS has also been documented as having impressive potential to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, as well as chronic pain. This stimulation works to boost non-REM sleep. The benefit of this is that it improves the function to the Glymphatic System, which is basically the sewage system of the brain. During non-REM deep sleep the Glymphatic System works to reduce accumulation of beta amyloids in the brain. This has the possibility to help us stave of Alzheimer’s disease.
13. Live for your health, not for society: I included it as a bonus because it’s less of a tip and more of a change in mindset and lifestyle. Much of what we do is to keep up with what we think we have to keep up with because our Western society tells us so. However, much of the things society pushes on us or we think we have to do to be a part of the world we live in, is not healthy for us. In fact I would go as far as to say most of it is a true detriment to our health and longevity. The food, pace of life, and the need to always be doing something is something Western society trains us to do. So I am telling you to find a balance here. Yes, most likely you need to keep your job, get your kids to school, and take your pets to the vet, but know that doesn’t mean it has to be a constant go, go, go. There’s no race here. Remember to schedule days and nights for restful sleep and peaceful mornings. Begin to structure your life for happy living, not to be some cog in the wheel of society. So in the words of Mr. Spock “Live Long and Prosper”.
Alright, my friends there you have. Sleep: simply put, it’s important. It not only keeps us alive but allows us to have a long and quality filled life. Want to keep diabetes and Alzheimer’s at bay? Start now (even if you are in your 20’s) and get your full 8-9 hours each night. And if you can’t, then start getting those naps in and change your life so sleep is a priority! Thanks for reading everyone and happy dreaming!
The Kevin Rose Show: Episode #23: Matthew Walker Ph.D – Author of “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”