Updated: May 15
Sleep is a real unsung hero in health. It's our body's under-appreciated worker that we have all taken for granted. I must admit for years I didn't realise the true extent of its importance until reading Matthew Walker's 'Why We Sleep', despite my education in all the fields it directly affects: physiology, psychology, nutrition, rehab etc. Embarrassingly enough it was my mum lecturing me on how sleep can drastically affect our Telomeres (a component of our genetic structure which has a big part to play on our health) which first sparked my curiosity. She was stating some things she had read from her book 'The Telomere Effect', which sounded like they couldn't possibly be true. I have a practised face when listening to people when I think they're talking nonsense. However all revolutionary discoveries are seemingly ridiculous when first suggested, so I started researching the topics myself and found out there was a wealth of information regarding sleep and its effects on almost every aspect of our health. So sorry Mum - you were right.
Here's the abridged version for those reading late at night, staring at your screen and already thinking this is taking too long:
Go to bed now.
Sleep 8 hours a night.
Trust me. I know you think you don't need it, but you do.
Don't be an idiot, as it might change EVERYTHING for the better.
For the remaining lot let's get into it.
As viruses are on everyone's mind at the moment it seems like a fitting place to start. Most of the world right now is looking for ways to help keep themselves, their friends and family healthy and virus-free. Frequent hand washing and masks have been essential in decreasing the chances of exposure to the COVID-19 virus. However what can be done to boost our bodies' immune system to help if exposure does happen? Let me introduce you to Natural Killer Cells (NKC) (apart from being the most badass named cells in the body), these guys are essential in preventing a virus from taking hold in our body when we are exposed to it. A study measuring the effect of reduced sleep on NKCs found that one night of 4 hours sleep showed a 70% drop in NKC activity (compared to a regular 8 hours sleep). Seventy Percent... just think about that for a second. If there was a drug that gave you that sort of resistance against viruses (not to mentioned the work NKC do against cancers and other welcome guests in your bloodstream) it would be sold out before it hits the shelves.
If that didn't already have you running to the bedroom to find your lucky pyjamas, get a load of this. Men who sleep 5 hours or less have smaller testicles and testosterone levels the same as men 10 years their senior. It's a shame I have to resort to such facts to make you sleep more, but they're true and it's often this one which gets my male patients listening. There are similar changes to the female reproductive system: women routinely sleeping 6 hours a night showed a 20% drop in follicular-releasing hormone (an essential component to any successful pregnancy).
In studies of cognition, it shows equally stunning significance. Those tested on the ability to form new memories were shown to have a 40% difference in their ability to learn and recall memories when on 5-6 hours of sleep compared to their performance with 8 hours sleep. 40% decrease is again massive. This state of reduced performance isn't something you're aware of, meaning it might not feel like you're tired, most just get used to being 40% less sharp than they could be. Most people I tell this to say I feel fine, and I couldn't get that amount of sleep if I wanted to. This is because we have conditioned ourselves into this routine, it doesn't mean you're at your optimal performance. Again, imagine a pill that boosted your cognitive abilities by 40%, with no side effects. Everyone would be taking it, so why are so few of us routinely getting 8 hours?
Then we could look at the #1 cause of death worldwide: cardiovascular disease. Here the effect of poor sleep is shocking, and there's plenty of research on it. A study looked at over 2,200 Japanese men over 14 years found that those who slept for less than 6 hours showed up to a 400% increase in the likelihood of a heart attack compared with those who slept 6+ hours. Even when other known factors like smoking & obesity had been taken into account. Additionally, adults over 45 years old who sleep for under 6 hours a night and with irregular sleep routines, are twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack during their lifetime. When the statistics are this extreme it feels like this information needs to be shouted about - I try to restrain myself during my clinical sessions as I've been told it's not very professional.
So what is the takeaway from all this? If you want to boost productivity, keep your immune system strong against viruses and live a long life. Maybe your answer isn't in a new drug or supplement, nor the current ever-changing health fads, be it fish collagen eye drops or goji berry enemas. The first place to focus is often in the simple routines of our lives: our sleep, how we exercise, what we eat, how much we drink, the way we address ourselves and those around us. Sleep is more than just a factor in your health, instead, it's a fundamental that influences far more than we had ever thought. To use a ridiculous analogy: If your house's foundation isn't stable, you shouldn't be worrying about the curtains.
Tips for better sleep:
Keep a routine: set an alarm to start getting ready for bed, as well as to wake up.
Keep a cool room ~18C
Remove all phones and laptops from the bedroom (if you're using your phone to help you wake up, order an alarm clock- this small change can make a massive difference).
Keep a clear head - don't try to fall asleep right after a horror film or a brutal workout. Take time to calm down, do some stretches or gentle exercises (slow and controlled), read a book, drink a cup of caffeine-free tea, meditate. Do whatever you have to do but don't let this include alcohol or medication.
If you're still in bed wide awake, then get up. Getting angry at yourself for not being able to sleep will keep you stressed and awake. After 20 minutes or so of no sleep, it's best to get out of your bedroom and read a book in another room (No screens, no bright lights), then return to bed when you feel tired. Do not do something overly engaging like answering emails, playing video games or watch your favourite shows.
Get in the sun during the day - this helps regulate your sleep hormones and produce vitamin D (which plays a role in healthy sleep).
Don't drink coffee past lunchtime (even if you think it doesn't affect you) and reduce your alcohol intake.
If you need further help with your sleep you can book an online consult and we can discuss how to improve your sleep as well as whatever else has been bothering you (disclaimer: I don't do heartbreak or marital issues).
Sweet dreams folks!
Walker, M., 2017. Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Simon and Schuster.
Blackburn, E. and Epel, E., 2017. The telomere effect: a revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer. Hachette UK.
Irwin, M., McClintick, J., Costlow, C., Fortner, M., White, J. and Gillin, J.C., 1996. Partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer and cellular immune responses in humans. The FASEB journal, 10(5), pp.643-653. Zhang, W., Piotrowska, K., Chavoshan, B., Wallace, J. and Liu, P.Y., 2018. Sleep duration is associated with testis size in healthy young men. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(10), pp.1757-1764.
Touzet, S., Rabilloud, M., Boehringer, H., Barranco, E. and Ecochard, R., 2002. Relationship between sleep and secretion of gonadotropin and ovarian hormones in women with normal cycles. Fertility and sterility, 77(4), pp.738-744.
Walker, M.P. and Stickgold, R., 2006. Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 57, pp.139-166.
Hamazaki, Y., Morikawa, Y., Nakamura, K., Sakurai, M., Miura, K., Ishizaki, M., Kido, T., Naruse, Y., Suwazono, Y. and Nakagawa, H., 2011. The effects of sleep duration on the incidence of cardiovascular events among middle-aged male workers in Japan. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, pp.411-417.
Huang, T., Mariani, S. and Redline, S., 2019. Actigraphy-Measured Sleep Regularity and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Circulation, 139(Suppl_1), pp.A007-A007.
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