A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book. – Irish Proverb
When I decided to work on this blog, I got reminded of my Greek friend's advice while working in Barcelona. He told me that the one thing you must never worry about splurging your money on is the mattress. It is the place where you spend almost half of your life. Well, I took this advice pretty seriously and trust me, I never regretted it ever.
As you all know, the cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth. Cheetahs can go from being stationary to running at 60 miles per hour in just a matter of seconds – but they also sleep as much as 18 hours in a day to rest after reaching such remarkable speeds. Unfortunately, human athletes aren't always as wise.
But how often have you heard someone make a New Year's resolution to get better at sleeping?
It might sound like an excuse to be lazy, but sleep is a crucial process for the body that influences our ability to achieve other goals.
Sleeping less is not saving time, its wasting health – from the book The Blue Moon Day
Sleep in today's world
Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone." — Anthony Burgess, Inside Mr Enderby
Sleep can be a wonderful, rejuvenating experience, a time for repairing our bodies and refreshing our minds. And although the modern world seems intent on destroying the sanctity of sleep with screens, artificial lights and strenuous demands on our time, you can use modern science to push back against this.
In our modern world, which prizes speed and productivity, sleep can seem like a waste of time. If we're swamped with work or overwhelmed by a laundry list of tasks, the first thing that we sacrifice is our sleep. This war on rest has become so acute that the average person's sleeping hours have decreased from roughly nine hours to seven.
But there are big problems with painting sleep as the enemy of productivity. When you're sleep-deprived, not only are you slower and less creative – you also accomplish less.
Heath Cleland Woods, a sleep researcher at the University of Glasgow, found that people sleep less well when they're emotionally invested in social media and suffer from higher anxiety rates.
Emotions and stress aren't the only problems with social media, either; the blue light emitted from our devices also keeps us awake.
Industrialisation – an enemy of sleep
"Your future depends on your dreams, so go to sleep." – Mesut Barazany
In the 1980s, a new global economy required people to work longer hours than ever. Since money never sleeps, more people were adopting the same attitude, despite the fact that there was also a booming fitness craze.
Remarkably, psychologists and scientists were also claiming that there were health benefits to sleeping less. Journalists were seemingly happy to perpetuate the myth of sleepless success by seeking out scientific data that supported this narrative.
There were entire books devoted to the subject. Everett Mattlin's 1979 book, Sleep Less, Live More, was filled with research that argued against the need for eight hours of sleep per night.
In 1981, psychologist Ernest Hartmann released his own findings, which suggested that those who sleep six hours or less are more energetic, capable, successful and happy. He even encouraged people to train themselves to sleep less in order to reap these benefits, just as dieters need to change their lifestyle if they hope to lose weight.
"Some people can't sleep because they have insomnia. I can't sleep because I have Internet."
One study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found that surgeons awake for over 24 hours took up to 14 per cent longer to complete tasks and made 20 per cent more mistakes once they did. And if there's one person you don't want to slip up, it's your surgeon.
One primary reason for this is that sleep deprivation reduces the brain's glucose content – an essential carbohydrate that your grey matter uses as fuel. And this glucose starvation doesn't affect all parts of your brain equally; the ones that are hardest hit are your parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex, which are involved with problem-solving and high-level thinking. After 24 hours without sleep, glucose in these regions decreases between 12 and 14 per cent.
Furthermore, several studies have shown that skipping one night of rest makes us insulin-resistant as type-2 diabetics. An insufficient amount of this essential hormone leads directly to weight gain, signs of ageing and decreased sexual drive.
Thus, sleep is not the enemy of productivity or an obstacle to overcome. It is a necessary restorative state, vital for our physical and psychological well-being. We cannot be healthy or function at peak performance without good quality sleep.
"Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds." – JoJo Jensen
In a sleep-deprived state, your performance suffers, your immunity is compromised, and your stress hormones creep up. Your ability to learn, evaluate situations and respond to stimuli are also diminished.
Even more worryingly, studies have found that a week of sleeping only four to five hours a night amounts to a cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of one per cent!
Sleep also helps us cope with emotions by highlighting our daily anxieties, a benefit demonstrated by dream expert Rosalind Cartwright. Over five months, Cartwright logged the dreams of 20 recently divorced men and women, half of whom were clinically depressed.
Those who recalled their dreams more often would experience longer and more complex dreams, which often integrated recent emotional experiences. This group recovered better than those who had shorter dreams and often couldn't recall them. As Cartwright explained, the dreams were like rehearsals for the patients' recovery.
Then, it follows that our dreams can help with emotional trauma, often showing us multiple perspectives, thereby helping us understand and process experiences more effectively.
"Never waste any time you can spend sleeping." – Frank H. Knight
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our brain's pineal gland, and it has powerful rejuvenation and antioxidant properties. But, most importantly, it regulates the body's circadian rhythm – our internal body clock, which tells us when to sleep.
Our melatonin production is heavily affected by exposure to light; when the sun goes down in the evening, our bodies naturally release the hormone, making us sleepy. And people exposed to light early in the mornings will produce more melatonin in the evenings, allowing them to fall asleep faster and in a deeper state once they doze off.
This is why we should try to maximize light exposure during the day. And it's particularly important to expose ourselves to sunlight early in the morning because bright light also prompts our brains, organs and glands to wake up and be alert. With this in mind, try getting a short walk somewhere between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
At the other end of the day, in the evenings, limit your exposure to screens, starting 60 minutes before bed. Electronic devices pump out a heavy blue spectrum of artificial light.
Your body is especially sensitive to this spectrum, and exposure to it in the evening inhibits the release of melatonin, making it harder to sleep. There is software available for phones and computers that filters this blue spectrum out, but it's better to completely steer clear of the screens and read a book before bed instead.
Also, ensure you're sleeping in a pitch-black room. Light isn't just absorbed through our eyes, but our skin as well. Nightlights and daylight rays peeking through curtains inhibit melatonin production, which leads to lighter and shorter sleep.
Studies have shown that light in bedrooms can suppress melatonin levels by over 50 per cent, so blackout blinds are a must for those sleeping after sunrise!
But an easier – and cheaper – way of blocking out light is to ensure we get all of our rest when the sun is down.
It's all well and good to do the right thing, but doing it at the wrong time is completely counterproductive, like applying sunscreen in the evening or watering flowers in the rain. This is especially true for sleep.
We can do everything right, but we won't get the best rest we possibly can if we ignore our timing. So let's look at some timing tips that will improve our nightly rest.
First, we should respect our internal body clock by going to bed within 30 minutes of the same time every night.
The modern world of work encourages us to cut down on sleep during the week and catch up on weekends – but this wreaks havoc with our circadian rhythms. Our bodies don't know when it's Sunday; they can't adapt quickly enough to incorporate our late-night Netflix binges on weekends!
If we hit the hay at a consistent time, our circadian rhythm will run smoothly, and we'll find it much easier to fall asleep and wake up.
For most of human history, we've been hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were programmed to sleep at sundown because snoozing during the day was a very effective way of being eaten by a predator.
So, evolution has conditioned humans to react to the Earth's patterns of light and darkness for thousands of years. Only in the last 150 years have humans started to override this instinct with the invention of the light bulb. But 150 years is a fleeting moment on the grand scale of evolution, and our bodies haven't caught up to our new nocturnal habits.
We should take advantage of the magic window of sleep between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. This is when our bodies reach their peak production of melatonin and human growth hormone. This means that sleep during this time is deeper and more rejuvenating than sleep after 2:00 a.m.
The Stages of Sleep.
Man is a genius when he is dreaming – Akira Kurosawa, Japanese Film Director
As you sleep, your brain cycles through four stages of sleep.
Stages 1 to 3 are considered non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also known as quiet sleep.
Stage 4 is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep.
NREM Stage 1
The first stage of the sleep cycle is a transition period between wakefulness and sleep.
If you awaken someone during this stage, they might report that they were not really asleep.
During stage 1 sleep:
Your brain slows down
Your heartbeat, your eye movements, and your breathing slows with it
Your body relaxes, and your muscles may twitch
This brief period of sleep lasts for around five to 10 minutes. At this time, the brain is still fairly active and producing high amplitude theta waves, which are slow brainwaves occurring mostly in the brain's frontal lobe.
NREM Stage 2
According to the American Sleep Foundation, people spend approximately 50% of their total sleep time during NREM stage 2, which lasts for about 20 minutes per cycle.
During stage 2 sleep:
You become less aware of your surroundings
Your body temperature drops
Your eye movements stop
Your breathing and heart rate become more regular
The brain also begins to produce bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity known as sleep spindles. They are thought to be a feature of memory consolidation—when your brain gathers, processes, and filters new memories you acquired the previous day.
While this occurs, your body slows down in preparation for NREM stage 3 sleep and REM sleep—the deep sleep stages when the brain and body repair, restores and resets for the coming day.
NREM Stage 3
Deep, slow brain waves known as delta waves begin to emerge during NREM stage 3 sleep—a stage that is also referred to as delta sleep. This is a period of deep sleep where any noises or activity in the environment may fail to wake the sleeping person.
Getting enough NREM stage 3 sleep allows you to feel refreshed the next day.
During NREM stage 3 sleep:
Your muscles are completely relaxed
Your blood pressure drops, and breathing slows
You progress into your deepest sleep
It is during this deep sleep stage that your body starts its physical repairs.
Meanwhile, your brain consolidates declarative memories—for example, general knowledge, facts or statistics, personal experiences, and other things you have learned.
While your brain is aroused with mental activities during REM sleep, your voluntary muscles become immobilized during the fourth sleep stage.
It's in this stage that your brain's activity most closely resembles its activity during waking hours. However, your body is temporarily paralyzed—a good thing, as it prevents you from acting out your dreams.
REM sleep begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. At this time
Your brain lights up with activity
Your body is relaxed and immobilized
Your breathing is faster and irregular
Your eyes move rapidly
Like stage 3, memory consolidation also happens during REM sleep. However, it is thought that REM sleep is when emotions and emotional memories are processed and stored.
Your brain also uses this time to cement information into memory, making it an essential stage for learning.
Once REM sleep is over, the body usually returns to NREM stage 2 before beginning the cycle all over again.
Time spent in each stage changes throughout the night as the cycle repeats (about four to five times total.
Sleep Vs Nap
When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap – Tom Hodgkinson
Naps may improve your alertness, help you to perform better and feel happier. If you know that you are coming up to a time when you will not be able to sleep much (e.g., a night shift at work), you can prepare for this by taking a nap ahead of time.
A short nap may also help if you are sleepy but need to 'keep going, for example, if you become drowsy while driving. Naps should be short; 15-30 minutes is best. With longer naps, you risk going into a deep sleep.
After waking from a deep sleep, you may feel disoriented for a while. It is best not to have a long nap late in the day, as this may make it difficult for you to sleep at night. A nap will not replace good quality sleep at night; it is only a short-term solution.
Tips for a good sleep
Understanding the biological aspects of sleep is an enormous help, but biology is only one side of the coin. To push our sleep game to the next level, we need to combine this knowledge with the proper lifestyle.
1. Get your timings right. Fix your time to sleep and to be awake. No exemptions on weekends too.
2. Set an unbreakable caffeine curfew. Refrain from caffeine after 5:00 p.m.
3. Evening alcohol consumption is another thing we should curb.
4. Keep work out of the bedroom.
Bringing phone calls, texts and emails into our sleeping space are one of the worst things we can do. That's because it creates a spike in our cortisol levels – a hormone closely associated with stress and wakefulness.
It also leads our brains to negatively associate with our bedroom, which subconsciously makes it more difficult to sleep there. We need to be strict with ourselves and not allow work to enter our sleep sanctuary; this is a place for us to switch off and zone out.
One of the benefits of exercising is better quality sleep? Because exercise creates micro-tears in our muscle tissue, which our body needs to repair, our brain lets loose a host of rejuvenating anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH). All this repair work means the body induces a deeper, more restorative sleep.
Maintaining a healthy mind is also key to high-quality sleep – and for this, we need to look no further than meditation. It's estimated that more than 50,000 thoughts run through our minds each day. And although most of them are short-lived, our inner monologue often intensifies when we're trying to drift off to sleep. But meditation can change this.
The simple act of closing our eyes and focusing on our breathing, even just for 10 minutes, is proven to lower stress and release feel-good endorphins into our system, priming us to drift off. In short, meditation is like a tonic for our manic, hyperactive minds.
7. Acupuncture is an effective, natural way to improve your sleep. People have utilized it for centuries, but now even modern medicine has confirmed its efficacy.
8. Medicinal herbs like lavender can also boost your sleep quality. Dioscorides, a doctor in ancient Greece, wrote about the soothing properties of lavender as early as the first century.
Modern science has confirmed the powers of lavender, too. It has been proven to slow heart rate, decrease blood pressure and lower skin temperature – another important factor in getting to sleep!
9. Methods like paying conscious attention to breathing or Feldenkrais can help get you to sleep. Feldenkrais is a method that allows you to gradually increase body awareness and relaxation by performing small and slow movements.
10. Magnesium Supplement
Supplementing with magnesium is another great way to stay healthy and supercharge your snooze. This mineral is responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, but it's particularly good for reducing stress and calming our nervous system. Magnesium balances blood sugar levels, optimize blood pressure and relaxes muscles, which all translate to a more relaxed state and a higher-quality sleep.
11. Melatonin Supplement
Some will know it's possible to supplement melatonin. This can be effective, particularly for insomniacs, but there are risks involved with it. The most important takeaway is that supplementing melatonin can inhibit your body's ability to produce this naturally. For that reason alone, it should be considered a last resort.
12. Introducing house plants like English Ivy and mother-in-law's tongue into the bedroom is a great way to induce calm and increase happiness, and plants are excellent natural air filters. And maintaining good air quality is crucial when creating sleep sanctuaries. They convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and recharge air's ions.
13.Utilising sleep-enhancing technological gadgets like smart sleep monitors, sleep-friendly artificial light and various other utilities.
"The nicest thing for me is sleep. Then at least I can dream." – Marlyn Monroe
Sleep deprivation isn't a hallmark of hard work, dedication or toughness. This widely held belief is a myth and one that's doing us harm. From children to elite athletes to CEOS, everyone is healthier and more productive when they get enough sleep. It's time for a sleep revolution.
Donate one more hour to your sleep and see what happens.
If you're clocking fewer than seven hours of sleep every night, try extending your slumber to seven or eight hours for a few nights and see if it makes a difference to how you feel and how productive you are the next day. You might be surprised what an extra hour can do for you!
Sleeping less than six hours a night will have adverse effects on your work. So carve out enough time for a good night's rest during your busy schedule. You'll likely find that your work efficiency improves when you get a solid amount of rest.
"Goodnight – May you fall asleep in the arms of a dream, so beautiful, you'll cry when you awake." - Michael Faudet.