And that’s the big problem. More than any other component of health, the consequences of sleep deprivation are extremely obvious to all of us, yet we still under-value it every night.
Neither the problem, nor the excuse in improving this can be knowledge or ignorance.
Unlike both nutrition and training, which have become so unnecessarily complicated that a whole industry of snake oil salesmen has been borne, this is not the case with sleep, the solution here is simple.
Biologically we spend a third of our lives asleep so why is it we don’t give much thought or importance to it? We know we can survive on less (see later in this article) but in part I believe at least it’s because we don’t value it.
Before the invention of the lightbulb people slept an average of 9 hours per night. Our total sleep time has reduced by about 20% in 50 years, equivalent of losing one full night’s sleep over the course of a week.
I can only conclude that we don’t hear about its virtues as much because
a.) We don't think it affects us, you don't feel tired.
b.) It’s not information that can be sold to you, sleep isn’t really a marketable product, in fact in some circles it's the opposite. It's not uncommon to hear phrases such as "I'll sleep when I'm dead" or that sleep should be a sacrifice for starting your own business etc.
There's good news in that though...improving it won’t cost you a cent but you do need to place some value on it.
There’s probably nothing new to you in all of that, but before you start muttering to yourself ‘I know, I know, I know how important it is’, then let me tell you that you probably don’t.
Some of the implications of sleep deprivation are quite scary, and not Blair Witch scary - proper Donald Trump levels of fear.
Even though what exactly happens when we sleep is not yet fully understood, all of the stuff we’ve known anecdotally is now being borne out with scientific evidence and more.
So let’s have a run down of just some of the known implications of sleep curtailment, your challenge is simply to find something of importance to you in this lot...
Decreased energy expenditure, glucose tolerance alteration, up regulation of appetite, in short setting yourself up for a pre-disposition of weight gain.
I don’t know what you do on a daily basis but I’d imagine there’s some level of importance placed on things like your ability, performance or responsibility to do it?
If you wonder why you can’t get stronger, leaner, bigger, faster or recover as well while seemingly doing everything right.
Behaviour and Mood
Even short term sleep curtailment has been shown to mimic symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, ADD, bipolar and others. On the flip side of that coin there are common and overlapping pathways between sleep/wake systems and psychiatric illness.
Lack of ability to respond to infection or repair itself, the effects of which can have big consequences if it’s chronic.
Endocrine system regulation
The bits inside you that produce and secrete hormones...the chemical messengers that control most of your major bodily functions.
Clearance of toxins
Such as Beta Amyloid, a build up of which in the brain has been associated with Dementia.
The act of sleeping also includes every brain transmitter and multiple brain structures. Some brain activity is higher during sleep than during the waking hours, proving sleep is not simply a period of ‘rest’ as we might think.
All of that stuff above can be improved by an adequate level of sleep, or can be worsened in some cases by just a couple of nights curtailment.
Of course if there’s nothing in that list that tickles you there’s little I can do to convince you to improve it. If it does though, here follows some tips on how (and why) to approach it.
How to improve things
Ok 'just sleep more' was a bit facetious there are things you can actively do to improve this.
First port of call is, if at all possible try to catch up on your sleep debt, as touched on it won’t completely reverse it or make up for the deprivation you’ve suffered but it is better than making your deprivation ‘chronic’. Try not to set an alarm at the weekend and sleep in as much as possible.
Once you’ve worked your way out of your sleep debt it’s time to increase your daily sleep. Most of us have fixed waking times, either for work, bringing kids to school etc. so your only realistic option is to move your bedtime earlier, aiming for at least 7-9hrs per night. Listen to your body and mind on this one as to where you fall in that scale.
The other thing about sleep is, it’s self-regulating, outside of some disease states and/or medications, you won’t be able to sleep any longer than you actually need. The theory is that if you sleep for 12hrs on a Sunday for instance it is because your body is trying to recover your week long (or longer) sleep deprivation. If that's not possible then try to factor in some napping to build up your time spent asleep.
This unfortunately means switching the TV, and all other devices off earlier and actually making your way to the bed. Live TV seems to be a thing of the past so the show you’re watching will be there tomorrow…discipline involved here, and that leads us nicely on to...
Suprachiasmatic nuclei - expialidocious
Or SCN to simplify, this is basically our master clock situated in your hypothalamus. These cells respond to light and dark cycles by telling the brain when it’s time to wake and sleep. This happens optically, and is directly stimulated by light and dark.
These light/dark cycles (or your circadian rhythm) also control things like our stress hormones such as cortisol, which is supposed to be low at night and higher during the day and on the flip side melatonin - the biological marker of the dark should be higher at night.
Modern life is flooding our eyes with blue stimulating light, especially LED's in tech, tv and bright light around the house. We’re unnaturally elevating cortisol, and suppressing melatonin, therefore disrupting our sleep while simultaneously introducing a host of other problems.
Try to limit the light around the house when it comes to sleepy sleepy time and make your bedroom as dark as possible. There are apps you can get that will reduce the blue light on your phone and tablets but ideally try to shut them down leading up to your bedtime.
Improve your sleep hygiene
Make your bedroom a haven for sleep. Think of it as your sleep cave, in that it ought to be dark and cool.
Your body natural drops your temperature in order to illicit sleep, and studies suggest that about 15degrees C should be about right. Too hot or too cold can disrupt your sleep, again find your sweet spot.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine or alcohol. This one ought to be obvious, but it's unfortunately common enough for people to use alcohol to induce sleep. This is also an issue because it disrupts some of the stages of sleep therefore nulling some of its benefits.
None of that applies to me, I’m doing just fine on 5 or 6hrs sleep.
Yep I thought that too. As with anything else in terms of health there is of course some variability between individuals but this doesn’t mean it’s not having an effect. According to some research it seems that some people simply suffer less, you just become adjusted to a lower level of performance.
And Just because you can simply survive on less, doesn't make it a healthy choice and may still be causing other issues with regards the list above.
We all know people who eat nothing but junk food and still manage to stay slim but that doesn’t make it an ideal route to health.
Add to that, the fact that some studies suggest that neurocognitive deficits can accumulate over time and that should be enough to convince you that you just might need more sleep than you think you do.
What if I work shifts?
The news here doesn't look good unfortunately. As much as you might think and feel like you can get used to it, it seems again that your battling against your biological function with regards your circadian rhythm. You can't fight against light and dark cycles.
If you're stuck on shift work due to career choice the best you can do is to get as much sleep as you possible can to store some 'credit' for the inevitable.
Can I catch up on sleep?
I also didn’t think this was possible but yes apparently it seems you can. In the literature this is referred to as sleep adaptation, which essentially means catching up on your sleep debt, along with titrating down to the recommended 7-9hrs per night.
But, and this is a big but, if you don’t regularly improve it, it will merely ameliorate the effects of sleep debt, not undo it completely, at least in studies with regard to your insulin sensitivity.
I want to lose weight (or what you really want to know)
As touched on in our list above half an hour ago up there, sleep deprivation plays a role in weight loss/gain. Theres growing literature showing a link between sleep and metabolic disorders and hormones.
This happens in a few different ways, mainly though through hormones than regulate appetite. Two major hormones called Leptin and Ghrelin have been the focus of several studies. To shorten extremely complicated processes lower leptin (stop eating hormone) and higher Ghrelin (feed me hormone) levels have been associated with sleep deprivation, essentially tricking you into thinking (and feeling) that you need more food.
In case that isn't enough, it also seems to lower our metabolic rate making it a double-whammy when it comes to weight gain. A lack of sleep changes both sides of the energy equation making it much harder for you to naturally regulate and match your intake with your output.
That's all great but I can't actually get to sleep or keep waking
Assuming that you've tried the methods above and you can't get yourself to sleep or keep waking up for periods of time, there might just be something else to consider. Stress - a subject that I have no desire to delve into here but is such a large factor I'm compelled to at least mention it.
We know that though cortisol ought to be higher during the day (light), there is a need to reduce it when it comes to the evening (dark) but due to the high stress/responsible nature of our daily lives this tends to be elevated a lot longer than it should. The results of which can be as dangerous as sleep deprivation and are often a vicious circle.
If you do feel that this might be a possibility then there are things you can do to help to reduce it. Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation techniques, even done for a few minutes during the day can help negate some of its effects. Exercise can help, though introduce this slowly rather than going for blunt force trauma. For more reading on this I'd suggest an excellent book entitled 'Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers' by Dr. Robert Sapolsky.
Summing up (we're nearly there now)
I'm hoping, having made it this far it's at least opened your eyes a little bit with regard both the importance and implications of sleep. You should know at this point that there's pretty much nothing in the body that isn't positively affected by more sleep, and if your goal is to live the happiest, healthiest life you can then increasing it should be high on your agenda.