SLEEP: Necessary or Not?
Sleep is an active state which is vital for building and nourishing physical and mental health. The newest sleep science advances are due to devices that read brain waves and track mental activity. Sleep has distinct phases. It fills our memory bank, reduces stress, improves the immune system, soothes emotions, fights dementia, and can help reduce obesity. However, most Americans do not get adequate sleep nor get 'good' sleep. Sleeplessness has many costs including increased potential for traffic accidents, natural disasters, and even medical errors.
We spend 33% of our lives in this trance-like state. It is different from unconsciousness. Humans follow day and night cycles that are innate and these guide our body temperature, alertness, hunger and health. At dusk a hormone, melatonin, is released and it tells our body to relax, wind down and get ready to sleep. With our society becoming more and more a 24-hr society with access to news, entertainment and work at all hours of the day and night, we are creating a society of sleep deprived individuals with common complaints such as: brain fog, fatigue, reduced reflexes, poor memory and sicker bodies. Even in small doses sleep deprivation is unhealthy. It can reduce our body temperature, cause paranoia, slurred speech, hallucinations and suppress emotions.
Circadian rhythm (around a day) is the cycle that governs our sleep/wake cycle that is so essential to our health. We all have a biological clock that is in the brain and keeps us on our 24-hr cycle. Every person has a slightly different clock but most people are at their peak mental performance in late morning and early evening. Athletic ability peaks in the afternoon and early evening. All of this is controlled through our biological clock. Things like traveling, working from home, stress and lack of exercise can upset our circadian rhythm because these things interfere with the clock which is already 'set.' Light is a crucial factor for setting this clock because in the brain there are certain cells whose job it is to keep body functions on time with day/night light changes of the sun. This is why short wavelength, or blue light, is so disruptive to our cycle/clock. We need darkness to cue our brains to get ready to go to sleep.
Sleep scientists are looking at increasing incidence of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia in sleep deprivation. With sleep deprivation, people have fewer cytokines, which are proteins that fight inflammation and infection. Sleep neurons 'talk' to the immune system. Most people need to boost their immune system these days to fight diseases caused by inflammation. Sleep science is even finding that lack of sleep reduces the efficacy of vaccines, which is incredibly important now with COVID and the flu season coming soon.
So I hope there are enough good reasons and research to begin to formulate better sleep habits.
To improve your sleeping habits:
- have a bed time routine
- turn off LED devices a few hours before bed
- have a consistent rising time in the morning
- reduce caffeine and other stimulants during the day
- try to structure your work from home schedule to stop work at the time you would normally leave the office
- consider cognitive behavior therapy to help reinforce these new routines & reduce stress
- use the bedroom for sleep and sex only; no TV
- keep the bedroom cool (60-67 deg F)
- avoid spicy foods or large meals late at night
- drink water and stay hydrated
- get more cardio exercise
If you simply can't sleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something like meditate, listen to soothing music or read a book but do not turn on the TV or your computer. Remember: you can't make up your sleep loss by sleeping in on the weekend.
If you would like to read more about the latest sleep science, I suggest going to the website for the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School.