We have been hearing it since we were old enough to remember: you need your sleep, at least eight hours of good solid sleep, but have you ever asked yourself why we sleep? The short answer is that without sleep we die, there is evidence of this both in animal studies, but also in humans who suffer from the aptly names fatal-familial insomnia, an extremely rare genetic disorder that usually manifests in one’s 50’s and leads to chronic insomnia and eventually death. For most of us, however, sleep issues are far less acute yet still have a significant impact on our physical, intellectual and emotional functioning. So going back the original question about the function of sleep the fact is that we are still trying to figure it out. Based on what we know about the effects of sleep deprivation most scientist agree that sleep helps restore the brain, people who are sleep deprived tend to show significant impairment on a variety of mental and intellectual tasks, as well a having difficulty maintaining balanced, rational thought, as evidenced some times by significant downward shifts in mood.
There are several other theories about the importance and function of sleep that relate to safety from night-time predators and dangers, conservation of energy, and of course the value of sleep to help with brain development. If you click here you will be directed to a good summary of these theories in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Consequences of sleep deficit:
Here is a general list of symptoms associated with sleep deficit. Of course, the greater the deficit the worse the symptoms.
- Increased tendency to make mistakes – including potential fatal ones when driving and in the work place
- Decreased mental functioning: difficulties with reasoning, problem solving, poor concentration and attention
- Poor emotional regulation: it goes without saying that there are only so many resources available for you to cope with daily stressors. If those resources are allocated to paying attention to your environment and getting by on a sleep deprivation schedule, they are not available for you to handle emotionally charged situations – unsure? Speak to any new parents you may know about the quality of their patience with one another in the first three months of their infant’s life.
- Increased rates of several illnesses and disorders including: headaches, depression, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, diabetes and sensitivity to the cold virus.
- Weight: weight can be affected in two ways, weight gains and weight loss. In animal studies, sleep deprivation is associated with increased hunger (levels of leptin, an important hormone associated with feeling satiated or full, drop) and increased activity. Over time, for the rats, this leads to weight loss. In humans, however, especially first world societies the increase in hunger is associated with weight gain (the theory is that the food available to us are so calorically dense that the increased activity doesn’t result in weight loss).
Bottom line if you are not getting enough sleep you are not as sharp, nor as productive, you become a potential liability on the road, you may be more prone to specific health issues and to top it off you are at a higher risk of weight gain.
How to excel at sleep:
- Create a routine: you remember when you were a kid and your parents had a pretty predictable routine before going to bed? With my children it looks something like this: about two hours before bed time they take a bath, get into their pajamas, have dinner, get to watch some TV (not ideal by the way), then we brush teeth and spend the last 30-45 minutes reading books, talking about the day and cuddling. Routines work with children and adults alike because they signal to the brain that a shift is coming. Our bodies will form an association between these behaviors and the sleep state and eventually a conditioned response is produced whereby as we start the sleep routine our body begins to produce important sleep hormones. An adults routine may involve turning off all electronics 30-45 minutes before bed time, washing up and sitting down to read a few pages of a book (unless the story is going to keep you awake). Ideally, your last step would involve some form of focused relaxation exercise such as deep breathing, mediation, or stretching.
- Go to bed at a reasonable time every night: The sleep routine thing works best if you are actually scheduling time to sleep. No matter how amazing the last episode of Game of Thrones might be it is not as exciting as being rested and healthy – that is what DVRs are for. Set a bed time and stick to it, make that bed time early enough to provide you with eight solid hours of sleep. Yes, I know, you do just great on five or six hours of sleep, or so you think. Can you imagine how much better you would feel and perform on a full eight hours? Lets say you wake up at 6:30 AM, you have a great sleep routine established which takes about 30 minutes, then your bed time should be 10:00PM. I can already hear the complaints about how early that is, and how you are not a child anymore, but ask yourself what it is you are doing that is really so amazing or important after 10 PM…exactly. You will get way more done tomorrow if you just give up the extra hour of TV-watching/internet surfing/texting/Facebook-ing/Instagram-ing/Tweeting, and enjoy the extra rest.
- Turn off those screens and light sources: the light emitted by electrical lighting, TVs, computer and smart phones dis-regulates our sleep signal. In an environment where light pollution is not present you would feel tired earlier and go to bed at a reasonable time. By dimming or turning-off lights in your house as well as turning-off your screens a bit earlier you improve your chances of falling asleep rapidly. While we are at it, try to keep lights to a minimum in your room, which means analog alarm clocks, chargers and small light sources from TVs and other devices should be absent or at the very least covered up at night. If you have to be on your computer (never in your bedroom though) take the time to download a program such as f.lux, which will eliminate blue light as the sun goes down (it takes some getting used to as your screen will turn more yellow, but it is worth it).
- Keep it dark: For the same reasons you want to eliminate blue light close to bed time and in your bedroom it is worth it to invest in good blinds or curtains. Ideally black out materials that will eliminate all light. You want your bedroom to feel like a dark safe cave.
- Bedrooms are for sleep and sex: Remember you brain forms associations, if you do work or other engaging/stressful activities in your bedroom your mind and body associate it with something else than rest. Keep it simple and let your bedroom mean one, okay two, things only.
- Limit stimulants before bedtime: caffeine, sugars, which means alcohols and any other stimulants should be eliminated at least 2 hours before bed. While you are at it, try not eating large meals or foods that are difficult to digest before bed.
Okay, I realize you are busy, and there are a lot of things you want to do after a long day of work. I understand that evening hours are most people’s down time. Ideally, you will decide to implement all six steps. However, if you had to choose only one, my recommendation would be the screens off (number 3).
Weekly exercise: Try turning off all screens by 9:30 and keep a log somewhere of how well you sleep and when you start feeling tired. I would love to read about it right here, if you wish to share your findings.