Have you ever heard the quote “If you want to kill someone quickly, take away their sleep.” It may be a bit dramatic, but you get the picture. Pulling an all-nighter here and there will leave you feeling a little weary but is by no means fatal, however cumulative sleep loss is when things can become dangerous.
This such effect was conducted on a group of unfortunate rats. Sleep researchers constructed a cruel contraption that woke up rats as soon as they fell asleep. Using this contraption, it took an average of three weeks to kill a rat by sleep deprivation. Grim stuff! Additional studies have shown significant levels of brain damage in sleep-deprived rats. The message is clear: not enough sleep = negative health consequences!
So how much sleep should we really be getting? And how can we maximise the quality of our sleep to improve our recovery levels and have us bounding out of bed the moment our alarm sounds each morning?
Firstly, let’s look at why quality sleep is so important, and hence why sleep deprivation is so detrimental to our health. Depriving the body of sleep is a sure-fire way to speed up the ageing process, primarily because of two reasons:
– the brain cleans up cellular garbage whilst you sleep,
– the body repairs itself whilst you sleep.
If the body does not perform these ‘maintenance jobs’ at a regular enough frequency, the following malfunctions can quickly manifest:
– problems with heat or cold regulation,
– a decline in immune function,
– an increase in cortisol, and other stress response hormones,
– imbalance in appetite- and blood-sugar-regulating hormones,
– increased levels of inflammatory hormones, such as interleukin and C-reactive protein.
Simply put, when you don’t sleep enough, your body is in a continuous hormonally depleted, catabolic state (destructive metabolism) and becomes sick, quick! : (
How much sleep do you really need?
Research by the Sleep Health Foundation found that 33 to 45% of Australian adults sleep either poorly or not long enough most nights. The website also states that ‘Australia is in the grip of a sleep deprivation epidemic.’ So with those heavy eyes, take solace in the fact that you aren’t the only person reading this who is having trouble achieving quality sleep.
Regarding how much sleep is healthy, the following table from the National Sleep Foundation sure is helpful. This can be used as a strong guide, however variations such as environment, genetics, and individual differences in daily physical and mental strain provide can lead to additional individual differences:
– Newborns (0-2 months) –> 12-18 hours,
– Infants (3-11 months) –> 14-15 hours,
– Toddlers (1-3 years) –> 12-14 hours,
– Preschoolers (3-5 years) –> 11-13 hours,
– School-age children (5-10 years) –> 10-11 hours,
– Teens (10-17 years) –> 8.5-9.25 hours,
– Adults –> 7-9 hours.
4 ways to achieve better sleep!
A significant step towards achieving improved sleeping patterns is having a basic understanding of what’s called Circadian Rhythm (CR). An entire blog could be written on CR alone, however the following figure sums up the typical 24 hour cycle suitably well.
The following 4 factors can be optimised to achieve improved sleeping patterns:
Exposure to morning sunlight helps maximise the natural surge of cortisol that occurs naturally around 6am each morning. It is this surge of morning cortisol that effectively ‘switches on’ your brain and body in preparation for the day ahead. A good way to maximise this natural surge is to step outside each morning and soak up the sun for 5 minutes. Us Queenslanders are certainly blessed in the sunlight department, with an average of 283 sunny days in Brisbane each year!
Why is this important to our sleep though? The morning hit of sunlight may help your cortisol levels naturally decline at night, so missing this can be bad news for your sleep!
It is important to limit the amount of artificial light at night, especially after sunset. This is why it’s a good idea to keep the TV out of your bedroom, and limit laptop, tablet or phone use prior to bed. Having too much light exposure at night affects the bodies secretion of melatonin, which naturally occurs around 10pm at night. Melatonin is important as it lets your body sleep and recuperate, and turns off waking brain activity to allow for neuronal repair.
This may be an obvious one: limiting external sounds will have positive effects on our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. However, if you understand how sound and music affect your brain waves, you can use this knowledge to alter your mental and physical performance states. Sound waves called ‘binaural’ beats are able to shift the brain’s ]electrical activity towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.
This is another topic that could be explored in an entire blog itself. In summary however, as humans we spend most of our lives in a beta-brain-wave state – aroused, alert, concentrated, but also prone to stress. When we lower the brain-wave frequency to alpha, we put ourselves in an ideal state to naturally increase feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When we lower brain-waves further, towards the production of delta and theta waves, we can slow our brain waves down to an amplitude that encourages a truly relaxed state, much like meditation!
There are numerous apps out there to help with this; I personally use Beatfulness, and play the different sounds prior to hitting the hay if I feel like I’ve had a particularly big day and need a bit of help relaxing the mind.
The idea behind grounding (also known as earthing) is that beneath our feet lies a limitless supply of natural magnetic energy that positively assists our circadian rhythm, our hormonal cycles, and our ability to absorb negatively charged electrons. It is these free electrons that can overcome the negative effects of oxidation and free radical damage, and subsequent inflammation throughout the body. The problem with this 21st century world that we have created, is that we have become totally cut off from nature and this free source of magnetic energy. So get those shoes off and reconnect with the natural world around us, and enjoy the sleep benefits of having your circadian rhythm re-calibrated and re-energised! More can be learnt on grounding by clicking here.
Try each of these four techniques either in conjunction or individually and gauge the results. Being something that we spend a third of our life doing, sleep is an important area to get right. Good luck!
Yours in health,
1. Greenfield, B (2014). Beyond training: mastering endurance, health and life. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.