To Sleep Is to Live
Sleep is the single most underestimated ingredient impacting your health and life. Sleep is so powerful, in fact, that making even tiny improvements to this activity we spend ⅓ of our time doing can radically improve the quality of our health and our lives.
This post (part 1 of 2, so stay tuned) will introduce you to the basics of how sleep works, and, more importantly, reveal some of our secrets to manufacturing the greatest sleep of your life.
On average, each of us spends nearly 36% of our time sleeping . Given the average lifespan, that’s more than ⅓ of our time here on earth. By the time we reach age 75, we’ll have spent 25 of those years asleep.
Yet we know surprisingly little about this thing we spend so much time doing. One thing we do know, however, is that sleep is essential to the human condition.
By the time you finish reading, I’m going to convince you that sublime sleep is the most important ingredient in great health. I’ll do so by explaining the science that illustrates how sleep regulates both your health and your quality of life.
But knowledge without action is worthless. That’s why each lesson will include a tip for improving the quantity and quality of your sleep.
After all, if you’re going to spend ⅓ of your life doing something you may as well be good at it.
Let’s start with the basics.
Sleep occurs in 5 stages.
The stages of sleep, in order from lightest to deepest, are REM (rapid eye movement), non-REM 1, non-REM 2, non-REM 3, and non-REM 4 (also known as deep sleep). Each of us, when sleeping, passes fluidly through these stages in what is known as the sleep-wake cycle.
The most important stages are REM and non-REM 4 because it’s in these stages that some of the most critical processes of our brain and body are regulated.
REM is recognizable by heightened brain activity. It’s responsible for memory connection, learning, and neuronal growth. Time in REM sleep enhances your creativity and can even help you solve complex problems. You also dream during REM.
In deep sleep (non-REM 4) your heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, breathing becomes regular, and you become less responsive to your environment. In this stage of sleep, your body releases growth hormone to stimulate muscle and tissue repair.
In short, REM sleep heals your mind and deep sleep heals your body. The amount of time you spend in these stages determines the quality of your sleep.
There are two ways to achieve more time in REM and deep sleep (non-REM 4).
1. Get more sleep.
Adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, sometimes more, to be at their mental and physical best. But the average American only sleeps about 6.9 hours per night and 30% of adults report sleeping less than 6. We’re sleep deprived, and it’s a serious issue.
Many people mistakenly think the recommended 7-9 hours is an average. But sleeping 6 hours tonight and 9 tomorrow night to average 8 hours simply doesn’t work. You must get 7 to 9 hours of sleep EACH night.
As soon as you drop below 7 hours, you begin to suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation. Sleeping a little extra the next day (or on weekends) doesn’t make up for the loss, especially for your brain. (Brues, 2010)
While “making up” sleep can diminish daytime sleepiness, reduce inflammation, and restore cortisol back to baseline levels, it cannot return mental performance--things like attention and focus--to normal. (Pejovic, 2013)
More sleep equals better sleep.
2. Sleep at the right time of night.
According to Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, “The time of night when you sleep makes a significant difference in terms of the structure and quality of your sleep”.
Timing matters. Aim to fall asleep between 8p and midnight every night. Missing this window throws off your sleep cycle causing you to lose valuable time in REM and deep sleep.
This doesn’t seem like too much to ask of ourselves; 7 to 9 hours is a reasonable amount and most people already go to sleep at the same time every night.
Sleep deprivation has been likened to dying.
Without sufficient deep sleep and REM sleep the body literally begins to die.
If you deprive yourself of sleep, you’re unable to recover physically, your immune system weakens, and your brain becomes foggy.
Or, as the researchers put it, “sleep deprived individuals experience increased risk of viral infections, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, and mortality.”
In fact, sleeping less than 6 hours per night adds 10% to your mortality chances, meaning the amount of sleep you get directly predicts your longevity.
To sleep is to live.
Sleep & Stress
In conjunction with our national sleep deprivation crisis, we also have a national stress crisis.
Stress is a physical condition associated with the release of various hormones by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is an adaptive system that allows we humans to maintain homeostasis or balance in our ever-changing environment.
But not all stress is bad. The HPA axis gives us jolts of energy and increases alertness when we need it most, like in fight or flight situations. It’s essential to survival.
Stress becomes problematic when environmental factors, like a stressful job, cause chronically elevated HPA activity, or chronic stress, a condition associated with high circulating levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), norepinephrine and other hormones that lead to a variety of health issues, not the least of which is impaired sleep. (Bush, 2010)
This isn’t a revelation since most of us know we don’t sleep well when we’re stressed.
What you may not know is that this equation also works in reverse. While stress results in poor sleep, poor sleep or too little sleep induces stress.
Studies have shown that dropping from 8 hours of sleep to only 6 increases morning circulating cortisol levels by up to 50%, so you’re stressed out before your day has even begun.
This makes it clear that getting a good night’s sleep can lower stress. So if you’re stressed out and not sleeping well, sleep more.
Which brings us to my first tip for sleeping like a champion.
Sleep Improvement Tip #1: Be Consistent
Your body loves consistency. It’s actually wired with an internal clock that’s designed to perform certain actions at specific times of day. It can’t be rewired and it doesn’t like change.
Humans evolved to operate in sync with the sun--something known as Circadian Rhythm. Trying to fight against natural Circadian Rhythm wreaks havoc on your health. (Fonken, 2013) So, to stay in rhythm with your Rhythm:
- Wake up at the same time every day, and make it early--preferably between 5 and 8. That goes for weekends too. Sleeping in on weekends throws off your rhythm for the week to come.
- Go to bed at the same time each night. The optimal time is between 8p and midnight, which ensures that you’re asleep during the early morning hours when your body cycles into that much-needed deep sleep.
Remember that you’re aiming for 7 to 9 hours EACH night.
Sleep & Metabolism
The sleep-stress relationship is a two-way street; lack of sleep causes stress, and sufficient sleep reduces stress.
Sleep affects your metabolism in the same way, especially in regards to your weight.
Sleeping less than 5 hours per night can actually increase your risk of obesity by 150%. (Cappuccio, 2008)
One study showed that losing just 30 minutes of sleep leads to significant weight gain. (Taheri, 2015)
What’s going on between sleep and metabolism?
Additionally, when your brain is tired from lack of sleep it becomes desperate for energy which it typically gets in the form of glucose. Because glucose is most readily available from sugar and carbohydrates, you begin to crave those things.
Sleep loss doesn’t just cause cravings, it causes junk food cravings. (Cauter, 2012)
2. Lack of sleep also impairs your glucose metabolism, causing insulin resistance (a precursor of metabolic disease) that deprives your body’s tissues of needed fuel even when fuel is available in your blood stream. (Gottlieb, 2005)
In other words, your body is unable to use all that junk food you’ve just given it so you’re still hungry. Get trapped in this cycle for too long and your body will lose it’s ability to regulate blood sugar and fat.
One study, in fact, showed that reducing sleep by 3 hours per night can completely negate the effects of restricting calories to as few as 600. (Chaput, 2012)
Proper sleep is the foundation of any effective weight loss or weight management plan. Sleeping less than 7 or more than 9 hours per night will counteract your weight loss efforts. So stay in the zone!
Sleep Improvement Tip #2: Develop a Nighttime Routine
There’s nothing worse than being exhausted but laying in bed wide awake because you can’t get the wheels in your brain to stop turning. The brain has to be given an opportunity to shift into a lower gear.
And since you’re now going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (remember, Tip #1), falling asleep easily and on time is essential for a good night’s rest.
Remember how your body loves consistency? This is especially true before falling asleep. Insert nighttime routine.
A nighttime routine calms your brain. It also conditions your body and mind to fall asleep at a certain time each day.
Nighttime routines don’t have to be long. The most effective range from 15 minutes up to an hour and the key to a successful one is selecting calming activities. Here are a few to consider:
- Turn off all electronics: tv, phones, tablets, computers, all of it. This is a must.
- Dim all the lights in your house, especially the bathroom.
- Take a bath with epsom salts.
- Wash your face / brush your teeth.
- Listen to calming music.
- Do some relaxation exercises, such as meditation or deep breathing.
- Write down things you need to accomplish the next day to get them out of your mind.
- Have a relaxing drink (other than alcohol). Try this tea concoction from Tim Ferriss, renowned everything hacker.
- Here are some other relaxing tea ingredients to look for.
- Read fiction. (See what I’m currently reading below).
Don’t expect your nighttime routine to work perfectly on day one. Experiment with different activities and find what works for you. It’s just one more ingredient to help you create the best sleep of your life.
My Nighttime Book: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles"
Sleep & Disease Risk
Hormonal disruptions--or metabolic disruptions--caused by sleep loss lead to weight gain. If unchecked for too long, these same disruptions can lead to metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.
Your disease risk is linked to sleep because sleep impacts how your body signals hunger and satiety, metabolizes glucose, and maintains energy balance. (Schmid, 2015)
Ample studies have found that disruption of the body's natural sleep cycle—as experienced by shift workers—significantly worsens metabolic health and escalates rates of chronic illness and early death. (Borba Brum, 2015)
Sleep deprivation is also closely associated with mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Some studies link these illnesses to your body’s inability, when it’s sleep deprived, to clear out metabolic waste that builds up in the brain during waking hours. (Xie, 2013)
The relationship between sleep deprivation and metabolic or mental disorders is, forgive the cliche, a chicken and egg situation, since new studies are confirming that lack of sleep does predispose you to these conditions.
But the good news is that there is more and more evidence showing that improving sleep can positively affect your mental and physical condition - even in severe cases of sleep-related illnesses. (Rusch, 2015)
Bottom line, consistently getting sufficient, quality sleep lowers your risk of developing metabolic diseases and mental disorders.
Which brings us, once again, to the importance of improving the quantity and quality of your sleep.
Sleep Improvement Tip #3: No Caffeine after 2 p.m.
Caffeine is a drug--an amazing one that 85% of Americans use on a daily basis.
Random fact: coffee accounts for about 54% of all caffeine intake.
Relax, I’m not asking you to stop drinking coffee. Coffee has many potential health benefits such as protecting your liver from cirrhosis, reducing heart disease risk, and even preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. (van Dam, 2005) (Santos, 2010)
The caffeine in the coffee, however, does make it difficult to fall asleep and disrupts sleep quality during the night.
Because caffeine has a metabolic half-life of 3-5 hours, it takes your body that long to process and eliminate half your caffeine intake. Consequently, caffeine can disrupt sleep even when ingested as early as 6 hours before bedtime. (Drake, 2013)
The simplest way to avoid its impact on sleep is to stop caffeine intake at least 6 hours prior to bedtime, preferably 8 hours.
Sleep & Fatigue
We discussed how sleep debt cripples your body’s ability to use energy even when it’s available, an impairment that elevates disease risk.
Another side effect of hormonal or metabolic dysregulation that can be equally as dangerous is fatigue accompanied by loss of productivity.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue is a cause in 100,000 auto crashes and 1,550 crash-related deaths each year in the U.S.
Quality sleep allows your body to clean out the metabolic waste (junk left over from the process of creating energy) from the previous day, ensuring that when you feed your body again its systems are primed to absorb and deliver energy where it’s needed.
Without sufficient sleep you can’t create enough energy no matter how much you eat.
Sleep loss weakens your immune system. And when the immune system is weak, it takes what it needs to regain its strength from your body’s energy stores. This depletes the energy available to perform basic daily tasks.
Sleep debt also intensifies physical pain, or aches, because it prevents your body from fully refreshing the neurotransmitters that suppress pain. Now your body is working extra hard to shush the pain - another energy drain.
Depriving your body of sleep for long periods of time can be even more detrimental to your health. 48 hours without sleep actually impairs oxygen intake and anaerobic power, which affects your athletic potential, physical coordination, stamina, cognitive abilities, and focus. (Engle-Friedman, 2014)
Sleep deprivation is like being drunk.
And being drunk is bad for productivity. (Kirby, 2013)
Burning the midnight oil or putting in a few extra hours to get ahead, “just for a few weeks”, is a losing proposition. It will significantly decrease the quality of your work output and life.
To be your best at whatever you’re doing, sleep more and sleep better.
Sleep Improvement Tip #4: Turn the Temp Down
Your body’s ability to change its internal temperature, known as thermoregulation, is linked to how you move through the various sleep cycles. As the night progresses, your core temperature drops.
Consequently, cool environments are best because they mimic your body’s natural temperature changes during sleep.
65 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius) is the ideal range for sleep - lower is better.
Just be sure to keep your extremities warm. Cold hands and feet are a sign of poor blood circulation and cause wakefulness. (Heller, 2012)
Consider wearing loose fitting socks, or placing a warm water bottle by your feet. Cold room; warm body.
That's all for part 1! What are your best sleep hacks? Let us know in the comments below.
Go catch up on part 2 right here.