I’m fairly certain that in my audience, there will be very few people that haven’t heard that we, as a general population, need more sleep. If you’ve been listening to me for any length of time, you’ve heard me mention it before. If you’ve ever heard statistics on stress, nutrition, or health, you’ve probably heard that you should get more sleep.
And yet, we aren’t. As a nation, we aren’t sleeping more. We’re actually sleeping less. We usually hear it as a general recommendation. You should sleep more. It’s not like you don’t really realize that. Most of us know that we’re functioning with less than optimal sleep. Some of you are powering through. Some of you would like more sleep, but can’t seem to get it.
I’ve always loved sleep and have always fallen asleep quickly and easily. Unless of course, I’ve opened a novel in the previous 24 hours and then I’m awake until it’s done. Which is why that only happens on vacation these days. This past New Year’s Eve, I pulled the first all-nighter I’ve done in a long time, Not because I was out partying. I was at the beach with a friend and while she (being in cancer treatments) went to bed at 8, I started a novel and with a break to watch fireworks from the deck, I read until I finished the book at 5 am.
My son takes after my mother. They have trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and prefer to stay up late and sleep late. Sleep has always been an issue for him, since the moment he was born. When all the other babies were fussy and cranky and ready for bed at 7 or 8 pm, he had the best part of his day. Now that he’s hit puberty, it’s actually easier than it’s ever been, but he still perks up about the time everyone else, meaning me, is ready for bed. This was the part of parenting that scared me the most. I know I don’t function well on little sleep and mothers of newborns don’t sleep much.
It turns out that my fears were somewhat justified. I was extremely sick during my whole pregnancy. The medical term for what I had is "hyperemesis gravidarum" which is fancy doctor speak for "excessive vomiting during pregnancy." In order to keep me semi-functional, I was on several medications usually given to cancer patients to control their treatment-induced nausea. I’m forever grateful for those meds, but the downside was that for the eight months before my son’s birth I was already having to wake up every few hours to take one or more of the different pills. By the time he was born, I was well-practiced but exhausted. And, as I mentioned earlier, he didn’t sleep well. Which meant I didn’t sleep well either. For years. I actually remember very little of his earliest years, because I spent it in a sleep-deprived fog.
It doesn’t take extended excessive nausea or a newborn for us to experience the effects of lack of sleep, however. Whether we feel it or not, lack of sleep affects us very quickly. I read several studies that indicate that one night of sleep deprivation can change how our bodies respond to insulin. One study suggests that one night of sleep deprivation may have a similar effect on our systems as six months of eating a high-fat diet. Shawn Stevenson, who wrote the book Sleep Smarter, said it this way, “just one night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin resistant as a person with type 2 diabetes.” So, my one-night reading binge on New Year’s Eve? It probably radically changed my body’s ability to deal with the food I was eating. And here, I thought I was just tired for a few days!
It turns out that sleep does an incredible amount of different jobs for us that just don’t happen as well or at all when we miss out on effective sleep. Here are just a few.
Anyone remember the six million dollar man? I’m showing my age here, but the opening narration included, "Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster." You have that technology too, It’s called sleep. Sleep rebuilds you. Your body is always either in a catabolic state, where it is wasting away or an anabolic state where it’s regenerating. Sleep is a heightened anabolic state, enhancing the rejuvenation and growth of your immune, skeletal, and muscular systems.
Poor sleep will make you dumber. Really. A study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that poor sleep quality was equal to binge drinking and marijuana use in determining academic performance. College students who were poor sleepers were found to be much more likely to drop out of classes and receive bad grades. Research shows that with 24-hour sleep deprivation, there’s a 6% reduction in the amount of glucose, or fuel, that reaches your brain. And your brain isn’t impaired equally in all areas. The amygdala or more primitive area of the brain responsible for survival wasn’t impaired as much as that responsible for executive functions. Executive functions are things like decision-making, managing time, paying attention and switching focus, making plans and organizing, remembering details, and having self-control.
I’ll give you one more. Your brain is very active when you’re awake, it’s making all those executive decisions I just mentioned, it’s taking in new information and processing it, it’s learning, it’s monitoring feedback from the rest of your body’s systems, it’s generally doing all the things that make you amazing. All these actions create waste products and the brain runs on a different waste removal system that the rest of your body. When you sleep, that system becomes ten times more active. It’s removing dead cells, getting rid of toxins, and taking out the cellular trash. What happens when the waste removal system in your home is backed up? When the garbage doesn’t get taken out. I’m not tossing blame, in my house, that rests on my shoulders and stacks up frequently, so I know how fast it smells. What happens if your bathroom plumbing gets backed up? Things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly, right? During sleep, several things happen to make waste removal much more efficient. One theory of one of the foundational causes of Alzheimer’s is the brain’s inability to get rid of its waste products.
Those are only three of a huge number of beneficial processes that are interrupted by lack of sleep or lack of good sleep. Think about it, it just makes sense. We’re designed to sleep maybe a third of our lives. As incredible as our bodies are, something we physically need to do so much of the time has to be incredibly valuable. But, we treat it as completely expendable.
What are you trading sleep for? More awake hours for what? Netflix? Work? Social media? Internet scrolling? Worry or stress? Next time you’re thinking about staying up late to watch just one more episode, consider what it's costing you. Your body will be less able to repair itself, less able to take out the cellular trash, and less able to make good decisions. So, if I can overgeneralize for emphasis, you might know what happened on "This Is Us", but you’re going to be more fragile, dumber, and have a head full of brain waste. Sounds like a good trade, right? Not so much.
If you’re staying awake to be more productive, it will actually backfire on you. You’ll finish whatever you’re working on more slowly and with more errors than you would fresh and you’re decreasing your productivity for the following day as well.
Another area that may hit close to home? Lack of sleep may be impairing your ability to lose weight. There several reasons for this, but I’ll just share one that I laid the groundwork for already. Remember I said that sleep deprivation impaired executive brain function like decision-making and self-control? While it causes more activity in the amygdala? You’re tired. You’re hungry because another thing that happens is that leptin, an appetite-regulating hormone, levels fall. You have impaired self-control and decision-making and your amygdala is sending you messages that you need food for survival, more sugar please, the glucose reaching the brain is reduced, grab those chips, stat! You’re stacking the deck against yourself and this is just one of the ways.
So, what can you do? There are a lot of ways to influence your sleep, and I’ll give you a list of ten. But, mostly today, I wanted to crack the door open on that very general, “we should get more sleep” statement so that you understand that there are critically important things happening in your body when you sleep. Hundreds, if not thousands of specific processes that are really important for your life, health and vitality. Trading sleep for an all-night video game binge seems harmless at 15, but even one all-nighter can have long-term harmful effects that wear down systems over a lifetime. Sleep isn’t just a luxury. It’s a vital part of a healthy life.
Here are ten quick suggestions to help you sleep better, longer. I’m not going to do a lot of explanation, but there are science and explanations available on all of these things and many of them you’ve heard before…you’ve just not done them. I suggest you begin taking sleep more seriously and work these into your life one at a time.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in this episode, but I hope as you make decisions this week about your sleep, you’ll begin to prioritize it more. I’ve changed how I eat in the last six weeks and a side benefit is that I’m sleeping better. I’m exercising again, and I’m sleeping better. I’ve darkened my room, and I’m sleeping better. I went to bed the other night instead of choosing a few more hours of work, and you know what? Life went on. I’m making some more intentional changes in the days to come. I hope you’ll join me!
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