Do you find yourself frustrated by your lack of results in your health pursuit of choice? You read all these articles about the amazing weight loss benefits of such and such a diet. You hear that if you eat in this way your brain will be less foggy. Committing to this form of exercise will give you rock hard abs. You are doing everything you are supposed to be doing but the results are, well, anti-climactic.
Luckily for you, I may know the reason behind your tepid results. The key to unlocking the door to improved performance may lie in the bedroom….How much do you sleep?
How much do you sleep?
If the answer is anything other than “8 hours, deep and unbroken” then you have a problem that needs addressing. In this post, I’ll lay out why you need to focus on your sleep and how to go about getting better sleep.
The process of sleep is evolutionarily ancient, and (as far as we know) universal across all species. Organisms have been undergoing some form of it for at least 500 million years. That length of time of conservation across so many and so varied species should be your first clue that sleep must be pretty damn important.
The other clue lies in an objective view of the apparent silliness of sleep. Evolution is all about selecting traits that keep an organism alive and give it the highest chance of reproducing in to the next generation. Sleep leaves you vulnerable to predators, doesn’t produce offspring and doesn’t help you find food. And yet, there it is, ubiquitous. Everyone is doing it and with amazing regularity; it must be pretty damn important!
Just how important is getting 8 hours of sleep every night? Here are 3 reasons that sleep should be at the top of your list of priorities.
Sleep makes you smarter
Sleep can be roughly split in to two main phases, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. These two main phases of sleep have are characterised by very different brainwave activity and perform very different, but equally important functions. When you are awake, there is no discernible pattern to your brainwave activity. It is a storm of electrical impulses coursing throughout your head as your brain responds to your environment and controls every aspect of your body. The brainwave activity of REM sleep is very similar to this – excitable and random (or at least as far as we know).
NREM sleep however, is different. During NREM sleep, your brainwaves become ordered. Long slow waves of electricity pulse from the front to the back of your brain, bathing and nourishing it, and allowing areas of the brain that are disconnected in our waking state to communicate with each other. It is through this concerted brainwave activity that memories that have collected in our short-term memory stores, are transferred to the long-term memory hub.
This point is an important one to remember.
Every day, we fill up our short-term memory with the things we experience during that day. However, this storage facility is small and so, at the end of each day, the content of it need to be transferred to a large and more permanent facility. This is one of the jobs of NREM sleep and is one reason that sleep is so critical to learning.
This is also relevant to your state before you are about to learn something. If you, for whatever reason, did not experience proper NREM sleep the night before a big study session, your short-term memory stores are likely nearly full, massively reducing your ability to take in any new content.
Sleep makes you more stable
Mental health disorders have reached epidemic levels in the western world. Everyone has either experienced one themselves or knows at least one person intimately who has struggled with depression or anxiety. What’s going on? Are we all becoming more fragile? Is the world become a more anxiety-producing place?
Maybe, everyone is simply under-slept….
One of the primary functions of sleep is to help us stay emotionally stable and to process the events, both traumatic and benign, that have occurred in our lives. In fact, Matthew Walker, author of “Why We Sleep – The New Science of Sleep and Dreams” describes REM sleep in particular as “overnight therapy”. The process of dreaming (which occurs during REM sleep) is thought to act as a processor of emotional memories, allowing you to integrate and understand the events that have occurred in your life. This integration happens in an amazingly clever way. REM sleep is the only time when levels of the stress/anxiety producing neurotransmitter noradrenaline drop to zero.
Combine this with the increased activity in both the memory and emotion centres of the brain and you can begin to paint a picture of what’s happening – the processing of memories and emotions in an anxiety-free environment.
Sleep helps you lose weight more easily
The other major epidemic that the western world must address is that of obesity. Nutritionists continue to argue over the primary causes of people’s weight gain issues, but whether it is as simple as too many calories or more complicated and related to insulin sensitivity, lack of sleep is definitely a major player.
Let’s look at the calories argument first. Sleep deprivation has a major impact on two hormones involved in controlling how much food you consume: leptin and ghrelin. The function of leptin is to signal that you are full and therefore do not need to eat. Having high levels of circulating leptin causes a blunting of appetite. ghrelin has the opposite effect, causing an increase in hunger. Lack of sleep causes a decrease in leptin concentrations and an increase in ghrelin – making you eat more.
How about insulin – the master storage hormone? Many people will argue that it is insulin, specifically our sensitivity to it, that primarily dictates how fat we get. The argument goes like this:
Too much sugar -> Lots of Insulin -> Storage of fat -> Decrease Insulin Sensitivity -> More Sugar – > Even More Insulin -> Greater Storage of Fat -> Further Decrease in Insulin Sensitivity etc etc etc
The final result of this is diabetes and/or obesity.
Lack of sufficient sleep can dramatically accelerate this process as it causes a large decrease in insulin sensitivity. One week of 4 hour sleeps is enough get you in to a pre-diabetic state.
What’s the lesson here? Whether you think weight gain is caused by consuming too many calories or by developing insulin resistance – poor sleep will mess with both!
How can you get more sleep?
It’s all well and good to recognise that most of us are chronically under-slept. Exactly what to do about it is another question entirely. The world we live in conspires against our circadian rhythm in such a way that to fight against it is to, in many ways, alienate yourself from society.
This is a constant battle in my own life. I understand on a scientific level the needs for 8 hours of sleep every night. I get it on a personal level, I feel my ability to focus drop of a cliff after a poor night of sleep. I am aware of the terrible effect that even a single glass of alcohol will have on my ability to access that emotionally nourishing REM sleep. I know that early-nights equal more strength and energy in my movement practice. But there I am, at 10pm on the sofa with my partner in front of Netflix even though I know that the light from the screen will be blocking my endogenous production of melatonin and therefore blocking the initiation of my sleep cycle.
With that in mind, let’s try and approach some realistically achievable sleep practices to help you tackle this problem we all face.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every night/morning – This will help keep your circadian rhythm regular
- Keep you room cool – You core temperature needs to drop a few degrees for you to sleep properly. There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep in a hot room – keep it cool.
- Download F.lux for your technology or wear blue-light blocking glasses in the evening. F.lux is a program you can install on your laptop/phone/tablet that will automatically filter out the wake-promoting blue light from your screen as you move in to the evening. The glasses will do the same but they have the downside of making you look like a top nerd. No screens at all in the evening is better than both of these but…baby steps I guess.
If you want to know more about sleep, stress, relaxation and how to build resilience in your life – head over and check out our online course Get A Grip…it’s a game changer.