Trying to lose weight, build muscle, or up your sports performance? Working your ass off for a promotion? Stuck on a problem and need to get creative? If you have any interest in how you look, feel, and perform, you should be sleeping like a boss. Protect your sleep time like Jon Snow protects the North. Seriously. Sleep is really important. The little things are the big things. Get the basics like sleep and diet right and your health will improve dramatically. As Carl Hunt—MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research—explains:
Most of us struggle to get enough sleep. So, let’s take a look at why we should be making it more of a priority. But first, we need to take a quick geeky detour to the land of sleep cycles. The place where our mind’s eye fuses dreams and reality into an LSD-inspired canvas.
How Sleep Cycles Work
Sleep is broadly categorised into Rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Our sleep cycles occur in five stages. In stages one and two, light sleep occurs. In stages three and four, we get deep sleep. REM sleep occurs during stage five, which is generally when we get those crazy dreams. You know the ones I’m talking about. They make you feel like Hendrix when he wrote Purple Haze.
We cycle through the five sleep stages during the night. A full cycle takes about 90 minutes. The five sleep stages look like this:
In a normal sleep cycle, we move from lighter sleep to deep sleep stages. Before moving into REM sleep, there’s an ‘ascent’ back through the lighter stages. The cycle starts again after the REM sleep stage. The time spent in each stage of the sleep cycle changes throughout the night. Early in the night, we spend short periods of time in REM sleep and more time in non-REM deep sleep. Later in the night, REM sleep time increases and non-REM deep sleep decreases. Over the course of one night, sleep cycles look like this:
Now you know how the cycles work, let’s take a look at the key reasons to make sleep a priority.
Poor Sleep Linked to Obesity
Most of us are aware that good nutrition and regular exercise are essential to weight loss and overall health. But we could be sabotaging our results by neglecting sleep. Sleep is as important as diet and exercise when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. Let’s look at some studies:
- A meta-analysis of different populations around the world shows an increased risk of obesity in both children and adults who are short sleepers.
- In a study of 5,400 men and 642 women aged 30 to 75, researchers found that shorter sleep duration was associated with higher body mass indexes, larger waist circumference, and more visceral fat in men.
- A large US study of almost 10,000 adults suggested that the obesity epidemic may be, in part, caused by a decreasing number of sleep hours. The study found that people between the ages of 32 to 49 that sleep less than 7 hours a night are significantly more likely to be obese. The results were dose-dependent, meaning that less sleep resulted in greater levels of body fat gained.
So, now you have science-backed excuses for telling any slack bugger that dares disturb your sleep to piss off.
While many studies have found an association between sleep and obesity, it’s unclear if poor sleep is the cause of weight gain or if the weight gain leads to poor sleep (or it could be a combination of both). We can’t assume that correlation equals causation. But there is a consistent relationship between short sleep times and higher levels of fat mass. This association is found even when accounting for confounding variables like demographic, lifestyle, work, and health.
The bottom line is that getting adequate sleep is essential to staying within a healthy weight range. But you might say, so what Liam? I’ll get fat. Who cares? Well, there are other important reasons for getting enough sleep.
Healthy Brain Function and Wellbeing
Have you ever been stuck on a problem then slept on it and had a eureka moment in the morning? Scientists are still unravelling the mysteries of sleep. But we do know that the brain doesn’t turn off. It runs critical processes that help us with learning, memory, and problem-solving. Which is why the old saying ‘sleep on it’ really works.
Getting a good night’s sleep can make or break your performance. Whether you’re studying, working on an important project, or learning guitar, adequate sleep is essential. In addition to helping with problem-solving, it improves attention, decision making, and creativity. It can even help with optimism and self-esteem. So get more sleep and cheer up, Sad-Sack.
I’m pretty sure we’ve all had days where you get the ‘head-nods’ at your desk at work. Whether it was binge watching Breaking Bad or going on an all-night bender, the following day becomes painful. Really painful. That’s because cognition, performance, productivity, and concentration are all negatively impacted when we haven’t had enough sleep. Let’s look at some examples:
- In one study, medical interns were found to make 36% more mistakes compared to their colleagues who were on schedules that allowed for more sleep.
- Another study found that sleep deprivation can decrease cognitive and motor performance in the same way that alcohol does. Which means your afternoon workout may be a little tough if you’re feeling ‘drunk’ due to lack of sleep.
We know that sleep can improve problem-solving abilities, attention, decision making, creativity, optimism, and self-esteem. It can also stop those dodgy medical interns from giving you the wrong meds. Convinced on getting more sleep yet? But wait! There’s more.
Lack of Sleep Screws up Hormones
Hormones are vital signalling molecules. They do much more than make teenagers act weird. They’re essentially your command centre and control just about every bodily function. Think growth, hunger, reproduction, and mood. And it turns out that sleep has a pretty big impact on hormone levels. For example:
- Research has found that decreasing sleep by 4 hours a night or completely depriving sleep for one night was enough to raise cortisol (the stress hormone) levels significantly. So, your response to stress could be impacted if you don’t get enough sleep.
- We get a major pulse of growth hormone after falling asleep. Getting less sleep could reduce growth hormone levels. However, research has found that the body will compensate when the pulse is disrupted by increasing secretion during the day. Still, it’s not something you want to risk, seeing the hormone is vital for growth of all tissues in the body.
- Testosterone levels and sleep are related. In healthy males, cutting sleep by 3 hours a night for 5 days reduced testosterone levels by over 10%. For men, this could affect everything from sex-drive to muscle building abilities.
- Leptin and ghrelin are our hunger hormones. Leptin signals fullness and ghrelin signals hunger. When we’re sleep deprived, leptin goes up and ghrelin goes down. It’s the perfect storm for overeating, which is one reason why a lack of sleep is related to obesity.
- Insulin is an important hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy. Sleep deprivation affects blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, which can lead to issues like type 2 diabetes.
If all that wasn’t enough to get you to take sleep seriously, there’s one final nail in the coffin.
Higher Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
Yep, not getting enough zzzs might shorten your lifespan. A lack of sleep could increase your chances of developing metabolic syndrome—a grouping of health conditions associated with an increased risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Here are some studies that have looked at sleep and metabolic syndrome:
- Diabetes: in this study, reducing sleep to 4 hours a night for 6 nights in a row was enough to cause healthy young men to show pre-diabetic symptoms.
- Heart disease: both shortened and excessive sleep were risk factors. The sweet spot with the lowest risk factor is in the 7-8 hour range.
- Hypertension: in a study of hypertensive patients, blood pressure and heart rate significantly increased in the morning after a sleep-deprived night.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to make sleep a priority. But how do you do this? Here are some ideas.
How to Get More Sleep
First up, start out by tracking your sleep and find out how much you’re getting. There are numerous free apps for your phone or you can keep a sleep diary. But if you really want to get quality data, I suggest investing in a wearable like Oura.
If you find you’re not getting between 7-9 hours a night, identify the issue. Is it long office hours, bad habits, gremlins? Get to the root of the problem. Draw a line in the sand and find a solution. Then, develop a good sleep routine. You can use the ideas below for a better night’s sleep:
- Light: your body uses light to cue circadian rhythms. Keep your room as dark as possible and remove all light sources. A couple hours before bed, you shouldn’t be exposed to blue light. If you can’t switch off the computer, you can use F.lux or get these cool glasses.
- Temperature: your room needs to be cool. Keep it between 18-22° C.
- Stimulants: no coffees or beer close to bedtime! Try not to have any caffeine after 2 pm if you’re sensitive to its effects.
- Noise: keep the bedroom as quiet as possible. You can get a white noise generator or use a fan if you live in a noisy area.
- Develop a bedtime routine: it should be relaxing activities that wind you down. Try foam rolling, meditation, journalling, etc. Turn off the TV, computer, and stop doing work close to bedtime.
- Exercise: getting regular exercise can help with sleep.
- Mattress: invest in a good one. It’ll change your life!
- Eating close to bedtime: test it out. Some people can’t eat before bed, others are fine.
- Read: do some relaxing reading before bed.
- Reduce water intake: stop drinking 2-3 hours before bed so you’re not getting up to go to the toilet all night.
- Shut off your brain: if you overthink a lot, get problems or tasks out of your head and down on paper before bed.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) find out why you’re not getting enough sleep and make some lifestyle changes. Start with one change at a time. Make it so small you can’t fail. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
I Need Your Help
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You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know how many hours of sleep you get each night and what impact it has on your health.
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