“If you’re an average sort of person, 36% of your life will be spent asleep. Which means that if you live to ninety, then thirty-two years—THIRTY-TWO YEARS—will have been spent entirely asleep.”
—Russel Foster, neuroscientist and sleep researcher
Also, if you’re an average sort of person, your response to the above quote was something like this:
I’m going to try to sell you on the idea that you need to make sleep a priority in your life. Over the last few months I’ve been digging through articles, studies, videos, talks, and books that discuss sleep; what happens when we sleep great, and—sometimes even more enlightening—what happens when our sleep sucks.
At the end of the article, I’ll link to some resources for those who would like to delve a bit deeper. For now, though, I realize that if you’re an average sort of person you will ignore those links and read only the article, hoping that I can convince you to make sleep a priority. So here goes.
First, read the opening quote again. Imagine celebrating your ninetieth birthday and realizing that over the course of your life you had been asleep for thirty-two years. That’s fucking insane. That’s longer than many lifetimes, and you were asleep for it! In light of this bit of simple number crunching, it’s pretty obvious that we are not just “on pause” for several hours each night.
Here’s what we think is happening each night:
And here’s what’s actually happening each night:
Firstly, because of this misconception, it is very, very easy to ignore the importance of sleep. After all, we’re just in some sort of “stasis,” right? Everyone I talk to about sleep agrees verbally that sleep “is important” and that they “need to be sleeping better.” But the conversation never, ever causes any change in their lifestyle or behavior because deep down, they just don’t think sleep is that much of a priority.
Secondly—and even worse—a cultural attitude has developed that belittles sleep and mocks those who value it, often turning sleep deprivation into a badge of honor. You’re probably familiar with the following, usually blurted out with smug, sneering self-satisfaction:
- “Sleep is for the weak.”
- “Sleep is for wimps.”
- “Sleep is a waste of time.”
- “Money never sleeps.”
- “There will be plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead.”
- “I pulled an all-nighter!”
- “I burn the midnight oil.”
No pain, no gain! When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Early bird gets the worm! Imagine what you could do with all your spare time if you just got up an hour earlier each morning! While you’re sleeping, your competition is hard at work!
Please realize that this rah-rah, tough guy bullshit has no place in a discussion of your optimal health.
It seems well-meaning and harmless, but is actually quite damaging to those who are duped by it. And here’s why.
Why We Need Great Sleep
First, notice I didn’t say “enough” sleep. Great sleep may or may not mean more of it than you’re currently getting. The quality of sleep is far more important than the quantity. Some people have average-quality sleep and should get eight or nine hours. Some people have sleep down to a science—a reproducible, efficient performance—and can make do with five or six.
Also, I didn’t say “good” sleep or “decent” sleep. I said “great” sleep. At the end of the article, I’ll briefly discuss some sleep rules for maximum quality. It won’t be anything innovative or new; Google for more if you’re interested.
What does great, deep sleep look like?
1) You fall asleep quickly.
2) Your sleep is uninterrupted, and if you do happen to wake up, you have no difficulty getting back to sleep.
3) You can wake up without an alarm.
4) When you awake, you feel fresh, ready, and energized.
5) You’re calm, relaxed, focused, and alert all day long.
6) You rarely get sick.
Here’s what great, deep sleep does for you:
1) Allows your body to fully repair and rejuvenate itself.
2) Allows your hormones to be produced and released in the proper order and amounts.
3) Improves your body’s ability to process glucose, stabilizing and normalizing your blood sugar, making you more resistant to diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and metabolic syndrome.
4) Burns off any excess food intake from the previous day as free heat.
5) Permits optimal Leptin signaling, which controls the brain’s oversight of the body’s energy status.
6) Reconstitutes the collagen proteins in your muscles, skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and organs, allowing the maintenance of structural integrity, elasticity, and resistance to wear-and-tear.
7) Allows your brain to solidify the neural networks that were activated that day, improving learning and memory.
8) Lowers inflammation in the brain and in the periphery, reversing autoimmune disorders and lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer.
9) Regulates dopamine and serotonin, which control the reward centers of your brain.
10) Regulates the chemicals associated with appetite and hunger.
11) Heals any damaged tissue in need of repair.
12) Increases your longevity.
13) Lowers your blood pressure.
14) Improves cognitive function, enhancing your creativity, problem solving, judgement, and critical thinking.
15) Improves athletic performance.
16) Lowers stress levels by modulating your body’s stress response.
17) Improves depression, schizophrenia, and other mental imbalances.
18) Decreases your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.
19) Decreases your chances of becoming obese.
What does shitty sleep look like?
1) You have difficulty falling asleep.
2) You wake up often during the night, and have a hard time getting back to sleep.
3) You wake up hours before the alarm, alert and awake, having only slept for four or five hours.
4) The alarm often doesn’t wake you up.
5) You get to bed after midnight.
6) You awaken in the morning feeling groggy, disoriented, or lethargic.
7) You often crave a midnight snack.
Here’s what shitty sleep does to you:
1) Impairs cognitive function, including memory, reasoning, concentration, and problem solving.
2) Dysregulates daytime energy levels, alternating between excessive lethargy and excessive arousal.
3) Increases your risk of major depression; a history of insomnia has actually been shown to predict future depression.
4) Increases your risk of anxiety and mood disorders.
5) Increases attention lapses and slows reaction time—sleep-deprived drivers have repeatedly exhibited the same level of impairment as drunk drivers.
6) Makes you more likely to show up late for work.
7) Diminishes your enjoyment of family and social life.
8) Makes you more prone to relationship and intimacy issues.
9) Profoundly diminishes the number of immune chemicals produced by your body, compromising its natural defenses and immune response.
10) Increases your blood pressure.
11) Increases your risk of heart disease.
12) Increases your levels of inflammation, as measured by highly-sensitive C-Reactive Protein.
13) Makes you more insulin resistant, reducing your tolerance for glucose and leading to obesity and diabetes.
14) Increases your risk of cancer.
15) Interrupts the function of the endocrine glands (pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, etc.), compromising hormonal production and function throughout the body.
16) Decreases your body’s utilization of body fat for energy.
The Layman’s Summary
We all have things we’d like to do each day. Realize, though, that each day begins and ends with sleep. If your sleep is not excellent, your days will not be as good as they can be.
You’ll feel better, look better, perform better at work, become more motivated, live longer, have more fun, enjoy a better social life, and have better body composition if you make sleep a priority.
So How Do I Sleep Better?
As I mentioned before, nothing here is new information. You’ve all heard it before, but here are some tips for getting better sleep:
1) No glowing rectangles for one hour before you hit the bed. That means no cell phones, laptops, TV, etc. When your eyes are exposed to artificial light after sundown, especially blue light, the brain responds to that signal by releasing morning/daytime chemicals. These chemicals inhibit the release of the sleep/restoration chemicals that are necessary for a great night of sleep. What should you do before bed? Read, meditate, make love, make love again but with somebody else there this time…the options are plentiful.
2) No food for three to four hours before bed time. Give your body time to finish digesting your dinner. The digestive chemicals that are released in response to food also inhibit the release of the sleep/restoration chemicals that are necessary for a great night of sleep.
3) Make your bedroom a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house. When we sleep, our temperatures must fall. Many of the magical chain reactions that rejuvenate us cannot occur at normal body temperature. Keeping it warm at night is a mistake.
4) Make it pitch black where you sleep; NO light. The eye sees light, tells the brain to wake the hell up, and just like that your sleep is not optimal.
5) Arrange your sleep so that as many hours as possible occur before midnight. A handy rule of thumb is that each hour of sleep that happens before midnight is twice as valuable as each hour that happens after midnight. Your brain knows when the sun has set. This signal initiates the cascade that’s pictured towards the beginning of this article. If you wait too long after sundown, you interrupt your body’s timing and your sleep suffers. Get to bed.
The Day Man
You might be wondering: won’t this make me terminally boring? No nights out? No social life? No fun? Not so fast, ye of weak imagination!
Since I implemented these strategies into my own life, my friends and colleagues have taken to calling me the Day Man. I still do everything on my—ahem—social agenda that I’ve always done, only it all happens during the day. With even a little bit of creativity and planning, the switch becomes easy.
Ever throw some bourbon in your coffee at 6:30am following a nine-hour night of badass sleep?
Ever make the time to cook your date dinner and have her over for a 3pm happy hour?
Ever DVR or Netflix your favorite shows and watch them in the morning instead of after dinner?
And then sometimes I go out at night. But it’s the exception, not the rule.
I won’t elaborate any more, but my point is that your work and social life can and will fit around your health requirements. And make no mistake, sleep is a requirement.
Sleep is not a luxury. Sleep is not something that only the lazy or underemployed can afford. It’s essential. If we all spent as much time planning our sleep as we did planning our diet and exercise, we’d be far healthier and less stressed than we currently are.
Think about it.
Some Further Reading
Search for yourself in the SLEEP archives. SLEEP is a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal that compiles all the most pertinent studies on sleep from around the world. Search obesity, depression, glucose regulation, appetite, and schizophrenia for starters.
Hell, just google “Consequences of Insomnia” or “Benefits of Sleep.” Go nuts.