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Is Sleep Really All That Important?

You’re struggling with sleep, right?

You wake up tired

You go to work, still half asleep

You get home at the end of the day, knackered and in need of rest

You go to bed exhausted (and yet still wide-eyed and stuck in thought)

Then you wake up tired again

..There must be something wrong here…surely?

Fortunately for me (and for all of you lovely people that read my stuff), I get exclusive access to the brains of some of the cleverest people out there and have finally been able to give the science-backed answer to the following questions:

Are you ‘under-sleeping’?

Are you ‘over-sleeping’?

Are you over-worked?

Are waking up too early?

Are you going to bed too late?

Are you doomed to forever be reading my rhetorical questions? (Let’s hope not)

Well, two things are for certain, you’re in the masses with this one and it’s about time we started delving into some research and get to the bottom of this issue that is slowly destroying your willpower and energy levels!

Firstly, I’m going to take you into the brain of sleep researcher Dan Pardi of Stanford University.

Now Dan is extremely knowledgeable in the field of sleep and particularly how it affects physical performance in endurance, reaction time and other big areas of our physical lives, as well as how it affects practically everything within the body from a nutritional front.

Dan breaks the effects of sleep loss into 2 main categories:

Physiological Effects. These include things like temperature disruption, heart problems, immune problems, a greater sensitivity to pain and increased cancer risks.

Behavioural Effects. This covers areas like your mood, your coordination, productivity, learning capacity, alertness and reaction time (the last 2 of these being linked to very main serious issues like car accidents)

To identify the level of sleep deprivation you’re going through, two terms are used that describe the extent to which you are sleep deprived and this is an indicator to the severity of the issues listed above:

Total Sleep Deprivation is where you entirely miss one or more nights’ sleep.

Partial Sleep Deprivation is the term used when you get a few hours missed off each night for about a week or so.

Most people, as you could guess, are stuck with the second term and this is proved through studies that bring forth statements like this:

‘Total sleep time in the United States* has decreased by 20% since 50 years ago’

That’s the equivalent of missing one entire night’s sleep every 5 days!

So when you think ‘surely this morning feeling isn’t a new thing?’, you’re right! It’s our new culture of ‘Play less, Sleep less, Work more, Eat More’.

Anyway, back to what Dan has to say…

Sleep is actually a HUGE category for study and Dan takes his pick of specific areas as this Partial Sleep Deprivation; where we lose the odd hour or two and he looks into what responses your body has.

Dan makes the point that “…a lot of sleep loss today is not because of chronic sleep issue but due to something the call voluntary sleep curtailment or getting less sleep because we went to bed later”.

See, we have this thing where we always want to fit more into our day and, when you have fixed work hours and a fixed wake-up time, you compromise in the two areas you have complete control over: what you do in the evening when you get home (probably watch a bunch of TV right?) and what time you go to bed (delayed by watching even more TV right?).

But Dan isn’t simply condemning us for being stupid for our behaviour

(in fact, he’s admitted that he falls into the very same traps himself from time to time),

but just like with nutrition, Dan says that our problem is in that there are way too many incredible and interesting things for us to want to spend our time on. We feel the burning desire to find more time for all this stuff that we want to see, experience and do, and so we just shave off an hour or so from our sleep to cram it all in.

So, we know our faults, but where do we go from here?

It’s clear that, the area you DO have the most flexibility in is the time you go to bed, so utilise that. The very same big area of our weakness is the area we can use as a strength.

If we can move our bed time further into the night, then we can also move it further back into the day. But it isn’t that easy, not unless you become MINDFUL of it.

The big point Dan Pardi was making, when stating that he also struggles with getting sucked into late night TV and other delays to bed time, was that anyone can slip off course if they don’t remain mindful of getting to bed before a certain time.

“It’s not like a set it, forget it, learn it and then that’s it, you have to interact with your own sleep practice or else you will probably end up in a situation where kind of the modern world will win.”

Is it about Quality or Quantity?

This is a big debate that is forever going on in the subject of sleep on all levels of expertise, but Dan poses the view that this is an inappropriate juxtaposition between quantity and quality. He says that there is a certain degree of quality that stems from the quantity.

No great sleep was ever had in the space of 20 minutes, regardless of how intense it was. But, on the opposite side, you could well have an 8 hour sleep of poor quality and still feel rubbish, so they’re both important factors of sleep. There are 3 factors that comprise a good sleep and they are timing (time of day), duration (length of sleep) and intensity (level of sleep).

Wait. Did I just say ‘level of sleep’?

That’s right, sleep has an official grading system where it is separated into levels to represent the depth into sleep you go; here’s a brief summary of each level of sleep:

Non-REM Phase 1 – The 5-10 minutes after falling asleep, you can easily be woken from this.

Non-REM Phase 2 – Your heart rate begins to slow down as you prepare for a deep sleep.

Non-REM Phase 3 – You’re now in deep sleep. You’re very hard to wake and would feel disorientated if some did wake you.

REM (Random Eye Movement) – This is where the majority of your dreams will occur and it is your deepest stage of sleep.

During the later stages of sleep, your body goes into complete relaxation and can now repair and grow tissue and bone, as well as strengthening your immune system.

Another Term for you: Phasic Sleeping

Phasic sleep is a relatively new concept where you get your sleep in smaller doses throughout the day rather than one lump sum. Upon review of the research bringing forward this method of sleep, the resulting verdict is somewhat flawed. See, the majority of studies were done with the military where the 8-hour sleep isn’t possible. The only thing that these studies truly proved was that it’s better than no sleep at all.

Returning to the 3 factors of good sleep:

Duration. Duration is simply how long you sleep for over a 24 hour period, not necessarily how long one sleep lasts (hence the bit about Phasic Sleeping). This can be divided over more than one occasion within that 24 hours, but without the sufficient evidence to say it is equally as effective as one total sleep, I would suggest this only as a secondary option when that simply isn’t suitable.

Timing. This is your circadian rhythm (you may remember me covering this on a previous post). A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour, reoccurring cycle that covers all areas of your biological environment matching that criteria, including those behavioural and physiological patterns that I mentioned at the beginning. The circadian rhythms all read off of one big clock-like nucleus in the brain (suprachiasmatic nucleus) that synchronises with the light/dark cycle of your environment. Your body restores itself best when in its stable, habitual environment where you go to sleep and wake up at a certain time consistently. Your body learns at what time it should go into each stage of sleep so, when you mess that up and go to bed at a different time, your brain doesn’t achieve each level at optimum time because it isn’t familiar with its sleep pattern.

Intensity. This is the factor that you can only really affect by indirect means. It is controlled by the concatenation of the levels of sleep, meaning that it is based on how well your body and mind transition through the stages of sleep which takes effect from a series of different hormonal processes in the body. When you go to sleep tired and wake up energised, it is the result of hormones being released and your body having the chance to fully repair itself for the following morning.

Are you born to be either a morning/late night person? Or does it develop over time?

You are born to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light, that’s just human biology. As to whether you are more inclined to optimise later or earlier into that light period, there is some more changeable factors.

Your natural proclivity to either end of the day is known as your chronotype and it can be changed over time. It is massively determined by your circadian genes, but it can be modified via behavioural adaptation. There are moments where your circadian rhythms can desynchronise and this is where you can create this opportunity for change. Over the course of a year, as you progress through seasons, the light/dark cycles will change, leaving your sleep timing with the choice to go with the light/dark cycles or stick with the duration of sleep that it’s used to. This can be further accentuated when you travel abroad to countries in different time zones. Your brain is still working on its usual 24 hour cycle of when it goes to bed and when it wakes up, but your environment has completely changed your light/dark cycles and therefore your body must adapt; this transition period is what you call jet-lag.

Now you know you can adapt your chronotype, all you have to do alter your light exposure to fit with your desired sleep routine (think black-out blinds, sleep masks, artificial lighting, etc) and your body will do the rest.

Ipad Insomnia

You must be able to figure that one out. When your eyes are exposed to light, it triggers a response in the brain which, through a few chemical processes, leads to the release of a hormone known as melatonin which increases the activity in the cortex. Ipad Insomnia is where you say to yourself “I’m going to read on my Ipad until I feel sleepy”. The very nature of this is a contradiction to itself: using your Ipad will mask your tiredness. If you just chilled in a dark room, you’d feel a lot more tired and a whole lot sooner. But it goes deeper than that. When you expose your eyes to light at night time, you actually tell your circadian rhythms that ‘now is part of the light cycle and is when you should be producing energy for me’. This takes longer to take effect though and therefore we often don’t appreciate the damage it is doing to the restoration processes of our bodies.

The problem with inconsistent/shift work

If you’re are a shift work or have a consistently inconsistent regime of sleep/wake cycles, your circadian rhythms are constantly playing catch up and therefore never truly restoring your body. Having these issues can also disturb your metabolism and is an unknown culprit for cognitive impairment, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancers. In fact, it is actually one of the main reasons for these health issues; suddenly not just about feeling tired anymore is it?

What are your own personal circadian rhythms & sleep cycles?

Dan has gone into a lot of detail with this stuff, but I’ve managed to get my head around it and put it into a short, sweet action plan to really help you get it all under control and completely master your sleep pattern.

The thing is, you are an individual and you have your own individual needs that you must meet so, to get in control, you have to first figure out what you truly want in terms of time to go to sleep, time to wake up, number of sleeps per day and times of optimal energy.

What is the action plan to get control of all this stuff?

Once you have that all clarified, you can move onto an action plan to get there. Now, I gave you a series of nuggets of information over the course of this blog and I will be referring back to these (let’s see if you were paying attention haha)

What should I do and why? Looking back over the various features and their options for adaptability, consider each one and ask yourself ‘why should I do this?’ If you can’t answer that sufficiently, then consider the alternatives. Pick one factor to change at a time to help make this a reliable action plan.

How do I do it? Now you have your list of things you should do, pick one and consider how you will implement it.

Am I doing it? When you move onto actually doing it, make sure you really are! Are you timing it? Are you recording the change from before and after doing it? Are you sticking to it strictly? Make sure you get these right before you progress onto the next one.

Is it working? Now is the all important moment where you must establish whether it did actually have the desired effect and in fact it is working. Make sure you give it at least 3 weeks to take affect and then gather your experimental evidence and establish either ‘whoa, that certainly worked’ or ‘okay, that literally did nothing’.

Sure, it isn’t anything flashy, but it’s personal, internal and is definitely worth the patience to finally work out what your optimum method of sleep truly is.

I hope you take this one seriously and take some serious steps toward implement some of the processes I mentioned.

If you aren’t quite grasping it or would just like a big of guidance, I’m more than happy to respond to any comments and Emails you send across so don’t be a stranger!

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