Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?

I recently read Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” which details the science of sleep and its wide ranging benefits to life (and side effects from the lack of sleep).  It is fascinating that every living organism has evolved to sleep in some way, shape, or form, and that even though we spend a third of our lives sleeping, we know quite little about it.  A seemingly simple question such as “why did we evolve to sleep?” is actually a difficult question to answer. This book is one of the more in depth books on the science of sleep through the lens of a sleep neuroscientist (originally heard on this podcast).   It is an excellent book and enlightening.  In short, quality sleep time should be a much larger priority in life than it has become in the modern world.

Some of the side-effects from a lack of sleep:

  • Increased risk for cancer, dementia (Alzheimer’s), and heart disease
  • Lower energy (having energy is one of the highest factors in improving well being)
  • More likely to become depressed
  • Weakened immune system (more likely to get sick)
  • Shorter life span
  • Causes weight gain & increased hunger
  • Lowers testosterone and sex drive
  • Lowers cognitive performances – increased risk for injuring yourself and others

Not only does sleep allow us to live longer, it allows us to live better.  It is foundational to being healthy, and having the energy and motivation to do things in life.  The better we sleep, the longer we tend to live and the happier we tend to be.

The average American sleeps roughly 2 hours less each night than they did in 1900.  This is caused in part by the abundant stimulation of the modern world, the expected busyness of our daily lives, the lack of priority of sleep, the rise of electronic devices that slow melatonin release, the likely increased stress of day to day life, and the consumption of caffeine.  The affect of this is huge on our mental and physical health.  Not only does it cause us to be less productive at work, it makes us feel fatigued, makes us less aware, and is detrimental is to the long term affects on our lives.   Matthew Walker considers the lack of sleep the average person gets a public health crisis.  Because it is the foundation to good health, many other biological processes in our body don’t work properly without it.  A couple examples:

  • Exercise – if you run or do resistance training but don’t sleep, your body can’t recover and the strength you would otherwise gain won’t happen.
  • Diet – eat healthy but if you don’t sleep your metabolic processes become unbalanced and nutrients are not properly utilized.
  • Reading – learn and stay active but if you don’t sleep your time spent studying is lost and your memories can’t be as easily created – sleep is vital for learning and memory.
  • Social life – you’re less energetic and friendly without proper sleep, and you enjoy social encounters less than if you’re well rested.

Often people will say they feel great after 5 hours of sleep.  The issue is that subjectively it is very hard to notice if you’re sleep deprived.  In controlled cognitive studies on the sleep deprived, people who sleep less and “get used to it” consistently perform worse on basic cognitive tests even though they report and feel “well rested”.  Essentially people who consistently get used to a lack of sleep reframe their whole world of emotions and feelings to being sleep deprived (as subjectively people don’t tend to notice).

By getting quality sleep and not being sleep deprived, virtually all parts of their lives would improve including cognitive performance, improved emotions and control, reduced irratibility, and increased happiness, amongst countless other biological benefits.

Common culprits of bad sleep:

  • Caffeine – even if you drink it in the morning only, it can affect your sleep.  Do a 30 day challenge of no coffee and see if it makes a difference.
  • Staring at our screens – looking at our electronics within a couple hours of sleeping tricks our brain into thinking it’s sunny our, slowing the release of meltonin and causes us to not fall asleep as easily.
  • Staying physically active – we’re born to move around.  Staying active is key to getting good rest.
  • Staying hydrated – drinking 1-2 liters of water a day minimum is necessary.  Avoid drinking right before sleeping to avoid waking up to use the toilet.  Also avoid eating too close to bedtime.
  • Keep temperature cool – our core body temperature drops when we sleep and hence it’s easier to sleep when it’s cooler rather than warmer.  Ensure your room is comfortable.
  • Avoid alcohol before sleeping – though it may help you fall asleep, all it is really doing it sedating you.  You don’t get proper deep or REM cycles when drinking alcohol and therefore not really sleeping or resting.  This is why you can sleep for 12 hours after drinking and still wake up tired – it ruins sleep.
  • Give yourself time to sleep – if you want to sleep for 8 hours, you need to be in bed for 9 hours (keep all electronics out of your bed).  Make sleep a priority as it is perhaps the most important thing one can do for their well being.
  • Lack of sunlight – sunlight is a vital part of our lives and our brain’s wake and sleep rhythm is tied to it.  Getting sunlight, especially into our eyes, sets our circadian rhythm and tell us when to be awake and when to sleep (sleep during the night when it’s dark and wake when it’s light out).
  • Staying up late – having a consistent sleep time and wake up time allows the bodies circadian rhythm to function properly.  Make an effort to wake up the same time each day, including weekends.

I’ve been experimenting with sleep for several years and the above tips will definitely help if you’re either not getting good sleep or simply not prioritizing it.  10 years ago I believed I could sleep when I was dead, but I was clearly ignorant to the vital importance of sleep.  Over the last 5+ years, I’ve averaged close to 9 hours of sleep a night and regularly track my sleep cycles.  I follow the basic tips outlined in the post, and generally feel optimistic, motivated, and energetic.

I’m always experimenting of varying strategies to improve the quality of life, and sleep is definitely a core component.  I look forward to learning more about sleep and continue to work on improving the quality of my sleep.

So with that said, take some time this week to sleep 8-10 hours a night, and notice how much better you feel.  Make sleep a priority.