Most people would agree that sleep is a fairly important part of health. However, in today’s society of increased work demands, high levels of school work expectations, and constant connectivity, sleep health continues to decline on average. In fact, many people brag about how little sleep they get as a badge of honor. Being able to ‘get away’ with only 4-5 hours of sleep is often seen as a symbol of high achievement. While this may allow you to work more hours or get more done during a 24-hour time period, it is definitely detrimental to your health. Some of the common side effects to prolonged sleep deficiency are:
- Mood disorders, like anxiety and depression
- Sickness, or reduction in immune function
- Weight gain
- Low libido
- Heart disease
- Poor brain function
While this list would seemingly make people want to sleep more it doesn’t ever work that way. The demands of work and life have become so overwhelming that most people feel like they can no longer afford to be asleep for too long. This means that not only are people more stressed than ever, but they are reducing their body’s number one recovery tool in order to get more work done. At some point things will break.
Many people have heard that the magic number of hours required to sleep is 8. While it seems that many experts say that 7-8 hours is a good goal, many times this depends on a few different factors:
#1 Your age
Anyone who has kids or has been around them enough knows that they need much more sleep than adults do. Bedtime becomes so important for kids because it becomes evident that without enough sleep they become cranky and irritable, both things that parents want to completely avoid. This is because their bodies are growing at such a rapid rate that they need the sleep for these regeneration and growth processes to happen efficiently. When we become adults we don’t require quite as much sleep as our bodies are no longer growing and developing at such a rapid rate. This is one thing that we must pay more attention to as a society as our teenagers in high school are often times getting only 5-6 hours of sleep a night with the demands of school work and sports, when in fact they should be getting 9-10 hours. In fact, studies have been done in certain counties where the start time of school was pushed later until 9am to see the effect on grades. Not surprisingly, grades went up across the board when kids were allowed to sleep more.
#2 Your exercise volume
Since sleep is the main time that your body is recovering, the more recovery you need, the more sleep is probably required. Those people who exercise at high intensities, durations, and frequencies need to be sure that their sleep is adequate otherwise overtraining and injuries become much more probable. This is one reason that beginning to exercise helps you sleep better. Your body needs the recovery and so sleep becomes much more crucial to repair from the days activities on days when you’ve exercised.
#3 Your health status
The healthier you are the less ‘work’ your body is doing to stay healthy. If your body is constantly fighting infection, pain, or inflammation then more recovery is required each day. Your body has to do more work just to get back to a normal, healthy balance. This is one of the reasons that people sleep more when they are sick. The body needs all hands on deck in the recovery department and sleep is the best time to do it. This phenomena is also evident when people are in chronic pain. When pain is constant the nervous system is in overdrive and this takes and exorbitant amount of energy. This is why people feel exhausted when they are in pain all the time. They need more recovery time to overcome a poor health status.
The reason that I want to highlight these various differences is to show you that how much sleep you need may change from time to time. It is less important to focus on a specific number of hours, but rather on how your body and brain feel. Don’t hesitate to allow yourself more or less time to sleep as things change in your life. Now, that being said, it is probably still a good idea to shoot for somewhere in the 7-8 hour range. The experts have found that his range is acceptable for most people’s bodies to function normally so use that as a starting place and adjust according to your specific situation.
Regeneration and Recovery
When you are sleeping your body is recovering and regenerating from the days activities. The bodies energy sources are somewhat finite and without constant replenishment energy availability becomes scarce for various processes in the body. Think of it like a bank account. During the day you are spending your money on many different activities that require money (energy): thinking, walking, exercising, keeping your body at a constant temperature, detoxifying the body, hormone reactions, etc. Everything in the body requires energy and this slowly depletes the bank account. Your body can continue to make new energy throughout the day, but eventually you will need some down time to let your bank account fully replenish. Sleeping does just that. It replenishes your bank account so that you can spend money the next day to perform at a high level. Chronically depriving your body of this time does not allow your body to fully replenish the bank account. This means that they next day you have less money to spend before it runs out. Do this long enough and certain systems in the body will not longer work efficiently and will begin to get damaged. This is why there is such a long list of side effects (as stated earlier) with long term sleep deficiency.
Why do you think the sleep deprivation is one of the worst forms of torture? It eventually makes multipole systems in the body begin to fail, especially the brain. This is because the brain uses the most amount of energy, by far. It is our master computer and if it is not working efficiently, nothing in your body can work efficiently. Let the body sleep enough and all systems will bounce back and work better.
Detoxification is a normal process in our bodies and without it we would quickly become sick. The liver is the main organ in our body that deals with detoxification processes. Each day we accumulate various toxins in the body, but luckily we were designed to handle these with ease as long as the body is working well and the toxins don’t become excessive. The body’s lymphatic system is a network of vessels and organs (including the liver) that has one primary function: rid the body of toxins. This is obviously important, but it does not extend to the brain. Or at least we thought until recent studies proved otherwise.
Not long ago, scientists discovered a lymphatic system in the brain. The amazing thing is that is doesn’t go into effect until we are are sleeping! This means that the only time the brain detoxifies is when we are sleeping! So, in effect, a deficiency in sleep means that your brain does not have enough time to detoxify, and harmful toxins can remain in the vessels that surround the brain. Not a good thing. So if you want to have a healthy brain you need to get enough sleep.
3 Factors of Good Sleep
This is a good time to discuss the different factors that are important in a good night’s sleep. It is much more than how many hours you are lying in bed. There are three main areas that need to be considered.
This is the obvious one. This means the amount of time that you are asleep, NOT in bed. If you are in bed for 8 hours, but it takes you one hour to fall asleep then you are only really sleeping 7 hours. While this seems obvious it becomes an important point as many people have difficulties falling asleep which is drastically harming their sleep.
This refers to the quality of sleep while you are asleep. If you toss and turn all night, wake periodically, or get up in the middle of the night you are greatly affecting the quality of your sleep. There are many sleep tracking devices available now and most will track the different phases of sleep and how long you are in deep sleep versus superficial sleep. Many layers of sleep are important, but the more that you are disturbed during the night, the less chance your body has to hit each stage of sleep. This becomes very important because many people consistently get the magic 8 hours of sleep, but the quality is not very good at all. In fact, many times I will be happier if my clients get less hours of sleep, but of a high quality, versus longer hours but constantly interrupted.
Sometimes the timing of sleep is highly variable for people. Timing refers to the cycle of time when you go to sleep and wake in the morning. Your body sets many processes in the body by a circadian rhythm. Hormone function is one thing that is highly dependent on this rhythm so it is important to try and normalize as much as possible. This means going to bed and waking at approximately the same time each night. And in a perfect world this would be closely related to the rise and fall of the sun. Having to work night shifts can be highly detrimental to health because it drastically affects the body’s circadian rhythms and makes it difficult for many things in the body to work efficiently. So aim to normalize your sleep/wake cycle and you will be improving the health benefits of sleep.
Another thing that is important to note is that proper sleep hygiene can help to improve the quality of your sleep. Sleep hygiene is all about getting your sleeping environment conducive to high quality sleep. There are many things that we know affect your body’s ability to sleep so removing those from the equation will naturally give you better results. For more information on this you can refer to a previous blog article (https://momentumfunctionalhealth.com/top-5-tips-to-better-sleep/) but for a quick summary these are some things that you can focus on to help your sleep improves:
- Cool room temperature: between 60-67 degrees
- Darkness: the more the better
- No EMF’s (wireless routers, phones, bluetooth, etc) near your bed
- No caffeine after lunch
- Limiting alcohol intake
- No screens (phone, tv, iPads, etc) within one hour prior to bed
- Meditate prior to bed to help stop incessant worrying/thinking
Some of these things seem obvious, but I have had numerous clients make some small changes in their sleep hygiene and experience fantastic results. The key is to really appreciate how important your sleep is so that you can do everything in your power to improve it.
The best thing you can start to do is honestly assess your sleep habits and how it makes you feel during the day. If you are using exogenous substance to help keep you awake and give you energy, you are probably not sleeping well enough. This means using sleeping aids to help you fall or stay asleep, or products like caffeine to help get your through the day. This doesn’t mean that coffee is evil, it just shouldn’t be used long term as a main source of your energy. So beware, in your self-assessment of fatigue and energy levels, that you truly appreciate whether these things are falsely elevated due to outside substances like sleeping aids and caffeine. This will only hide the fact that your body is lacking in proper sleep that is necessary for proper regeneration, recovery, and brain detoxification.
Unfortunately there is no magic cure for poor sleep. There are so many factors that are in play in helping people sleep well. Sometimes all you need to do is start improving all of the other Pillars of Health and sleep will indirectly improve. Working on your stress levels, nutrition, exercise, and hormone efficiency will help improve your overall health status and many times the byproduct will be great sleep. If you are still having a difficult time sleeping find a qualified health practitioner to you assess the different areas of your health. Hopefully by now you can see how important sleep is for your health.