Sleep: the Underdog
One of the most significant, yet underrated lifestyle factors that has profound and noticeable impacts on our health, quality of life and productivity. Sleep, and more importantly, sleep quality is something that would have once come naturally to us, but now, in our modern age of technology, with screens, artificial light and countless reasons to stay up after dark, not to mention the factors that affects our sleep that we can’t even see, or in some cases control. Sleep has become something you need to prioritize and practice, but the effort isn’t just worth the reward, it’s more valuable than you could realise without looking at the science.
Some Sciencey bits for you
The largest correlation between people suffering with depression is unsatisfactory sleep.This study shows that 90% of people that have depression were unhappy with their sleep length or quality. The fact that our mood dictates our actions most days should be reason enough for you to put emphasis on the importance of your sleep.
There’s a global experiment that takes place every year, and if we study it we can see how just one hour of sleep deprivation can affect us. This is the daylight saving time shift. Once a year, we lose one hour of sleep, and the following day, a plethora of negatives happen noticeably, workplace injuries increase and these injuries are likely due to reduced reaction speed and poor motor coordination.
Immune system suppression
Fairly intuitively, there is a strong connection between the immune system and sleep. Anyone who has had a cold or the flu know that they feel lethargic and sleep, and all you want to do is lay down and rest. Certain pro inflammatory cytokines including tumour necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) are directly correlated with increased sleep. Missing even a few vital hours of sleep certainly has to have an impact on your immunity, and chronic insufficient sleep will no doubt make you prone to flu, cold and infections.
Studies have shown that driving after a long day awake (17 – 19 hours) showed comparative reaction speed to intoxicated drivers. With a reduction of up to 50% in reaction speed in certain test, that extra half a second it takes you to see someone who walked out in front of you could be all the difference. I’ve never met someone who thinks it’s okay to drink drive, but driving when you’re tired can be just as dangerous. Don’t skip your sleep.
Many believe just taking sleeping pills and knocking yourself unconscious is the same as getting a long natural nights sleep, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. During sleep we have multiple phases of brainwaves we cycle though, of note, the stage where REM occurs. REM – rapid eye movements, is associated with the most restorative period of sleep we go through, but simple medicating and passing out doesn’t induce the same effect as natural sleep. This study showed 50% increased mortality for those who used sleeping pills. The same study also showed that those who slept less that 4 hours a night for extended periods had over twice the mortality rate of those who slept 7 – 8 hours a night.
Without a doubt the single most important factor to consider when improving sleep quality is your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is the master rhythm of your body, and a lot of other rhythmic functions of your body are impacted by this rhythm, like your cortisol cycles, melatonin, and even digestion are affected. You’ll probably find you get hungry about the same time every day, and that’s just some simple proof. The primary function of the circadian rhythm is the sleep wake cycle. By sleeping and waking consistently at the same time every day you can reinforce this cycle, and this is the most impactful and easy way to improve the quality of your sleep, because if you do it every day, it will become habit, and you’ll just do it without thinking.
Caffeine and alcohol
I’m talking specifically about caffeine and alcohol because they’re the most common drugs that affect your sleep, but all drugs will affect your sleep in some way, including prescription medications. You can reduce the damage done to your sleep quality by avoiding them before bed, a cup of coffee in the morning and the occasional beer or glass of wine probably won’t cause most people an issue, but drinking alcohol to pass out every night and drinking 5 espresso shots a day is going to reduce your sleep quality a great deal.
We talked a little about your circadian rhythm, and that circadian rhythm is primarily regulated by light, and the variance of wavelengths throughout the day. In the morning, certain wavelengths tell our circadian rhythm that it’s time for us to wake up, so we get a nice cortisol rush to give us energy and help us take on the day. In a similar way at night, the wavelengths influence our body to secrete sleepy chemicals like melatonin, that help us sleep. The first issue here is artificial light. If after the sun has set you still have all your lights on and you’re staring into your computer/phone screen, your brain, specifically your pineal gland, can’t produce the melatonin it usually would to make you feel tired. This can be easily avoided by limiting artificial light exposure, particularly before bed. Read a book by candle light, listen to an audiobook, or just spend some intimate time with someone in the dark… Additionally blackout curtains or a sleeping mask can help, especially if you have street lights outside your window, or you don’t want to wake up at the crack of dawn.
As if visible light wavelengths weren’t hard enough to avoid, there are other wavelengths that we can’t physically see, but have the same effect on melatonin and other sleepy chemicals on our brain. These non native EMFs like wifi, bluetooth, and mobile/cell phones all use frequency that your body can’t differentiate from artificial lights, and will have the same effect. This is harder to avoid because it’s less obvious, you can’t see it, but you can still minimize its effects. Firstly avoid wireless were possible, and if that isn’t possible, at least make sure its turned off at night and if you can’t do that, make sure it’s as far away from your bed a possible. Distance really makes the difference with electromagnetic radiation. Don’t have a wireless phone charger charging your phone next to your head when you’re trying to sleep. Absolute disaster.
Sleep is something you practise, it’s not just the end of your day, slumping exhausted into your bed. It’s part of your ritual, when you regenerate and integrate everything that happened to you throughout the day. Hopefully you’re better informed about some healthy lifestyle changes you can implement to get the most out of your sleep. Have a good night! Tuck in warm.