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The power of sleep

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling when your phone’s battery is draining fast, and you don’t have ready access to a charger? Most of us default to sheer panic and a sense of urgency. We search cafes and airport terminals for those lifesaving power charging stations and utter a deep sigh of relief if we end up finding one. Phew! If only sleep, the greatest power-source for our mind, emotions and body was so easy to replenish when our lives are frantic, and we feel utterly depleted of energy.  Sadly, sleep is the one energy source we relinquish when stressed and overwhelmed and instead of powering down and heading to bed earlier, we wish for more daylight hours to conquer our ever-expanding ‘to do’ lists. 

 

When Arianna Huffington dedicated her Sleep Revolution book (2016) (one of my all-time favourite reads) to “all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired”, I was keen to read more. 

We often equate taking a nap or going to bed earlier with being lazy, bored, indulgent, sick, or feeling unwell. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is what I regularly hear many clients say, until they start feeling like “I’m not even here, I’m like the walking dead”. Sleep is THE most powerful and available resource we have for peak performance and yet as a ‘switched on 24/7’ society, sleep is largely dismissed as an underrated piece of the performance puzzle. Our body works hard for us when we are sleeping; cleaning (we even have little vacuum cleaner type cells in our brain called glial cells), clearing, repairing and revitalising. 

“Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity – a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical; cleansing, and cognitive maintenance”

Huffington, 2016, p.18

Impaired performance

According to sleep experts (Gupta, 2021; Walker, 2017), getting the recommended minimum of 7 hours sleep per night* is just as important as good nutrition, being physically active and wearing your seat belt. In fact, if you don’t get the recommended minimum number of hours of sleep per night, you are more likely to crave sugar and fat; be less motivated to exercise and social connectedness and decision making will all be impaired.

“In just two weeks of getting six hours sleep per night, the performance drop-off is the same as in someone who has gone 24 hours without sleep. For those getting four hours, the impairment is equivalent to that of going forty-eight hours without sleep”

Huffington, 2016, p.29

For the majority of us, work takes top priority when it comes to our time and energy and advances in technology mean we can access work now wherever we go, even taking technology into bed with us!  As exhaustion, lack of focus, irritation and agitation become our ‘normal’, we deprive our bodies of better memory, and impair our social connections and decision making. I often caution my clients that if they rob themselves of the minimum number of recommended hours of sleep that it’s akin to sitting at their desk still working; hampering the deep-clean process the ‘cleaners’ require to ‘reset’ for optimal work efficiency. Studies have found that being awake for 17–19 hours (a normal day for many people), impacts brain function and performance equal to having a .05 blood alcohol level. (Huffington, 2016, p.30)

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Benjamin Franklin

Many studies have linked sleep deprivation with higher anxiety (Huffington, 2016; Mosley, 2020; Walker, 2017). Alarmingly, regularly getting 4-6 hours sleep per night increases risks of dementia, depression, mood disorders, learning and memory problems, heart disease, blood pressure, weight gain obesity, diabetes, fall-related injuries and cancer (Gupta, 2021). As a brain surgeon and a great writer and scientific investigator, Dr Sunjay Gupta used to say, sleep is one of the three pillars of brain health (with exercise and diet). He now quotes many lead experts who advise that “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brains and bodies, as well as increase healthy lifespan” (p.132). 

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

E. Joseph Cossman

Sleep and weight

The whole area of research around sleep deprivation and weight gain is a fascinating one. Dr Sunjay Gupta quotes a well cited study that people sleeping four hours per night for two consecutive nights experienced a 24% increase in hunger and tended to gravitate towards high calorie, starchy, salty and fatty food (Gupta, 2021, p.135). This is due to ‘leptin’ being produced through sleep (the satiated and satisfied hormone), while sleep deprivation increases ‘ghrelin’ (the hunger hormone). Sadly, even having one night of poor sleep often leaves us wanting more fat and stimulants throughout the next day. 

In his 2020 book Fast Asleep: How to get a really good night’s rest, Dr Michael Mosley refers to leading research about sleep and food habits that was conducted with people observed in sleep labs (Mosley, 2020, p.135). They found that the people who ate meals containing more saturated fat, carbs and sugar, experienced lighter, more disrupted sleep. Study participants whose meals were richer in protein and fibre got to sleep faster and spent more time in deep sleep. 

Contrary to our inventive ways to justify alcohol ‘to put us to sleep’, alcohol relaxes us as it enters our system but can be a stimulant around 3am as it gets metabolised in the liver it disrupts deep cycles sleep (Huffington, 2016).

So just how much sleep do we need at different stages of our life?

Age-recommended hours sleep according to National Sleep Foundation quoted in (Mosley, 2020, p.75)

Age

1-12 months

1-3 years

3-6 years

7-12 years

12-18 years

18-65 years

65+ years

Hours

4-15

12-14

10-12

10-11

8-9

7-9

7-8

Preparing your body and mind for a better sleep

  • Avoid eating and drinking 3 hours before bed where possible
  • Cool (around 18 degrees Celsius), dark and quiet environments promote deeper sleep. 
  • Dim the lights. By 9:30pm your pineal gland should be pumping out the hormone melatonin which signals to the rest of the brain to prepare for sleep. Melatonin levels start to rise at 9pm and peak in the early hours of the morning.
  • Really bright light (TV, phones, iPads) switches off the production of melatonin (especially blue frequency) (Mosley, 2020)
  • A warm bath or shower with a few drops lavender oil, reading a book, and listening to music all help us fall asleep and stay asleep. (Mosley, 2020, p.112) 
  • Avoid listening to the news, arguing or having difficult conversations – you don’t want to take them into bed with you. Your bed is for sleep – and somehow it all seems easier to resolve in the morning
  • Avoid long naps – less than 30 minutes and nap before 3pm is considered a refreshing energy boost that is less likely to disrupt your night time sleep cycle 
  • Exercise promotes good sleep and walking in nature calms the whole nervous system. We used to believe that if you exercised too late, it would disrupt your sleep. This is not so and it’s more to do with individual preferences (Mosley, 2020)
  • Achieving an ideal body weight enhances sleep quality and reduces likelihood of sleep apnoea
  • Yoga, mindfulness, mediation, and pilates are all good for sensory processing, assisting your body and mind to release the day.

 

Sleep aides

  • Stick to a regular schedule and aim to get up at the same time every day (even weekends and holidays), as much as possible
  • Create a calm, relaxing and nourishing bedroom environment so you genuinely look forward to going to bed to sleep. 
  • Lavender essential oil on a cotton bud in your pillow case, and other comforters that relax you and bring joy are nice to have in your bedroom 
  • The best bedtime is when you feel sleepy before midnight. It’s the hours before midnight that provide the deeper sleep, before the early hours of the morning 
  • Avoid blue light (LEDs contain blue light) a few hours before bed for optimal melatonin production 
  • Consider use of an eye mask and soft comfortable ear plugs
  • Mindfulness – being aware of your breath – following the rising of your chest and noticing what happens if you breath out for longer than you breath in. This is a fast  way to shift from sympathetic (high alert, fight and flight) to parasympathetic (I’m relaxed, calm and in control here mindset), lowers heart rate, and blood pressure. Some people benefit from breathing in through nose for 4, hold 5 out through mouth for 7… 
  • Paradoxical intention technique (Mosley, 2020, p.189) Rather than thinking stressful thoughts such as ”I must go to sleep now or I won’t function tomorrow”, flip them to “I am enjoying being awake. I really am. Let’s see how long I can stay awake for”. This takes the pressure off and may paradoxically lead to sleep.

 

 

I hope I have convinced you that if there is one kind thing you can do for yourself today, it’s add an hour to your sleep cycle and explore for yourself, what assists you – think of joyful relief as you prepare for a refreshing sleep. 

 

*According to Gupta, (2021, p.131) only a very small percentage of us have the sleep gene, a very rare mutation in a gene that reduces the need for sleep. These individuals naturally sleep 4-6 hours and function healthily. We don’t know the long-term effect of this phenomenon and the vast amount of people are not genetically equipped, so when they survive on less than 7 hours sleep, they have ‘trained’ themselves to wake up early. 

 

References

Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Headline.

Huffington, A. S. (2016). https://www.ariannahuffington.com (First edition). Harmony Books.

Mosley, M. (2020). Fast Asleep: How to get a really good night’s rest. Simon& Schuster, Australia.

Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Scribner Book Company

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