When you think about it, sleep is a strange concept. We literally spend around a third of our lives completely out of it. If we live until we’re 90 years of age, that’s 30 years of our lives spent in blacked out nothingness. That’s a long time! But the thing is, if we don’t sleep for 30 years, we’ll spend the other 60 awake years functioning at less than 100% efficiency.
What happens during sleep that is so remarkable?
- You refresh your brain. Throughout the day your brain accumulates waste as it processes the thousands of decisions you make. While you sleep, your body removes this waste at least twice as quickly as you do while you’re awake. That’s why your brain feels fried when you go to bed, and fresh when you wake up.
- This is when you consolidate your long-term memories.
- You use more fat as energy when you sleep longer. That’s right, sleep more and burn more fat. Sounds crazy, but it’s been proven that people who sleep longer will use more energy from fat, while those who sleep less will use more energy from carbs and protein.
How much sleep do I need?
A recent study split a group of men and women who slept for 7-8 hours every night into four separate groups. Group one were forced to stay awake for three days straight; group two slept for four hours per night for two weeks; group three slept for six hours per night for two weeks; and group four slept for eight hours per night for two weeks. The men and women were subjected to various physical and cognitive tests during this two week period. Here are the results:
- Those who slept for eight hours each night showed no signs of mental or physical decline.
- Those who slept for four or six hours per night gradually performed more poorly over the two weeks, with the six-hour sleepers only marginally better than the four-hour sleepers.
- A quarter of the six-hour sleepers were falling asleep at random times after one week.
- After the two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were performing at a mental and physical level equivalent to someone who had been awake for two days straight.
I don’t know about you, but the results suggest you need eight hours of sleep every night to perform at a high level both mentally and physically. What do you think?
What happens if I don’t sleep enough over a long period of time?
Every day our energy levels go up and down. We accumulate energy by eating nutritious food, getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of water, meditating, breathing fresh air, getting out in the sun, and many other factors. We also use energy by thinking, exercising, maintaining our bodily systems like digestion and circulation, stressing out, yelling at our kids, and many other factors here as well.
How you balance your energy in and energy out has a huge influence on how productive you are at any given moment. If your energy use is greater than your energy accumulation, you will eventually hit rock bottom, like a car running out of fuel on the side of the road. And on your way to an empty tank, you’ll be less and less productive as well. There is no choice when it comes to your energy stores, you can either regularly replenish them, or your body will force you to when you run out. If you go for the latter option, expect that crash to coincide with sickness and injuries.
Getting plenty of sleep is one of the best ways to refuel regularly.
This all sounds well and good, but I can’t get eight hours of sleep during the week. I’ve got to work, so I catch up on the weekend.
That’s a nice idea, but it’s a pity it doesn’t quite work like that. While a little extra sleep on the weekend helps you to feel refreshed and reduce inflammation, your mental performance does not bounce back. The only way to ensure your mental performance is optimised every day is to get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
What’s going on when I sleep that’s so important?
The sleep-wake cycle has two important phases, slow wave sleep (deep sleep) and REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement).
- Slow wave sleep – During this phase, you’re unaware of your surroundings and you find it more difficult to wake up. This is when your body goes through its repairing process. Human growth hormone is released into your system to grow and repair muscle, a vital time if you’re goal is to build muscle.
- REM sleep – This occurs 3-5 times per night, and it’s when your brain cleans out metabolic waste, consolidates memories, organises the information you’ve taken in during the day, and undergoes neural growth.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t have enough slow wave sleep, and you will miss several REM cycles. By not allowing your body and brain to recover sufficiently, you will increase your likelihood of infections, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurological and metabolic disorders. Oh, and you’ll probably die sooner.
What controls the sleep-wake cycle?
Throughout the course of any 24-hour period, your body goes through a number of biological processes. For example, one biological process is the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. You start producing it in the evening causing you to get drowsy, and stop producing it in the morning. This chain reaction of multiple biological processes is called your circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is what controls your sleep-wake cycle, and it’s influenced heavily by three main factors – light, time and melatonin.
- Light – This is the trigger for your circadian cycle. When light hits your eyes first thing in the morning, your circadian rhythm ignites. If you sleep in a bedroom with lots of light streaming in, you’re likely to wake early as cortisol levels rise causing your body and mind to waken. If you sleep in a dark room, you’re likely to sleep longer.
- Time – Your daily schedule, and what time of the day it happens to be at any given moment.
- Melatonin – Helps you to fall asleep. And controls your body temperature.
Is there a best time to get those eight hours of sleep?
Believe it or not, there is. If you get to sleep sometime between 8pm and midnight, you’ll give yourself the best chance of getting the most out of your eight-hour sleep-wake cycle. Why? Because your REM sleep tends to happen closer to sunrise, while your slow wave sleep happens in the earlier hours of the night. So, if you go to bed too late you might miss out on your slow wave sleep, and if you get up too early you’ll miss out on some of your REM sleep cycles.
We all have our own natural internal clock. Some of us naturally go to bed early, while others naturally go to bed later in the night. It’s important to listen to your body, and go to bed when it feels natural. Then make sure you get eight hours of sleep.
A nutritionist I met once said:
An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight.
Sounds like she might have been onto something!
That’s all well and good, but how can I get eight hours of sleep?
- Enjoy an hour or two of screen-free time before bed. When we watch TV, read our Smartphones or work on the computer right up until we go to bed, we don’t give our brain time to realise it’s night time. The constant beam of light will have delayed our melatonin production, so we won’t be biologically prepared for sleep. Spend that time relaxing, or reading a book instead.
- Learn to relax before bed. That could mean meditation, exercise (not within 2-3 hours of bed time), or deep breathing. Exercise helps your body and brain to slow down and rest overnight.
- Get into a sleep rhythm. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t matter what time I go to sleep, I tend to wake up at 6.30am every day. So, I try and go to bed at roughly 10.30pm every night so that I get eight hours of sleep. If you’re like me and wake up at the same time every day, you need to work out what time is best for you to go to bed. If this doesn’t apply to you, then figure out the most convenient eight-hour sleeping window, and try and stick to it as often as possible. That includes the weekends. This will help to keep your circadian rhythm consistent, which as we now know is the main factor in the quality of the sleep-wake cycle.
- Avoid caffeine, smoking and alcohol in the hours before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant, so having a coffee before going to bed is a bad idea. Smoking causes a range of health issues that affects your sleep, and you should just quit anyway. While alcohol may help you get to sleep, it will seriously impact on the quality of the sleep you get.
- Create a sleep-friendly bedroom environment. The best environment for a great sleep is dark, cool and quiet. That means turning the lights off and keeping the morning sun out, making it a screen-free zone, and keeping the temperature down by opening a window or turning on the air-con.
At the end of the day, you need to get eight hours of sleep. It’s important for your body, mind, overall health and well-being, and without being too dramatic about it, how long you live. So, turn your bedroom into the perfect sleep environment, get to bed on time every night, and watch what happens to your weight loss, muscle gain and overall productivity as your body and mind function at their optimum efficiency.
Over to you…