The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation and Benefits of Adequate Sleep

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Sleep is often the most overlooked and underappreciated element in optimising your lifestyle and recovery. Improving our sleep quality can have incredible benefits to your health and well-being. Conversely, not getting enough sleep can have detrimental effects on our health. Western society is built on productivity and a go-go-go, more-more-more attitude. We don’t pay any attention to our state of tiredness or readiness and if we do feel tired, we combat this with caffeine, energy drinks or pharmaceuticals. As a result, a sleep epidemic has arisen. Don’t think so? Why then, do the Japanese actually have a word describing the event of someone dying at their work-desk from over-work and over-exhaustion; Karoshi. I mean, seriously? How much longer can we go before this sleep epidemic catches up to us? With sleep deprivation being classed as anything lower than 7 hours of sleep per night and with most people struggling to reach that amount. It’s clear, along with the rising figures for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer that not only do we have a sleep epidemic, but a serious health epidemic.

Professor Matthew Walker, sleep scientist and author of “Why We Sleep” has described a lack of sleep as a brain stressor. Exposure to lack of sleep can and will cause a collapse of memory, attention, cognitive function, decision-making and learning ability. Physically, levels of adrenaline and nor-adrenaline (Fight or flight hormones) and cortisol increase. The increased activity of these hormones ensures that we are almost always on edge, stressed out and anxious. This soon leads to burn-out or a nervous system breakdown. We can also become resistant to insulin and more likely to develop type-II diabetes. Additionally, this causes hormones related to hunger and satiety to reverse meaning an increased appetite which can induce weight gain.

Ever feel snappy in the morning or during the day at work? This is a good marker that you are sleep deprived. When sleep deprived, the amygdala, our emotional alarm centre becomes significantly more reactive, inducing states of fear, anger, sadness and rage. You can become up to 60% more reactive to stressful stimuli when compared to fully rested.

Last on the not-so-good effects of lack of sleep is how it affects our genes and genetic expression. This phenomenon is known as epigenetics and deals with how our environment and lifestyle affect how our genes’ DNA can be manipulated positively or negatively. One research study aimed to assess the effect of restricted sleep (6 hours) vs non-restricted sleep (8.5 hours) had on subject’s genetic expression. The restricted sleep group developed distortions in 711 genes. Close to 50% of these were related to chronic inflammation, stress, cardiovascular disease and cancer which all went up in activity. Emerging research is now finding out that the foundation for all diseases is chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation, after exercising for example, is healthy and signals the body to repair the tissue back to a stronger and healthier state. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, or is always present, as a result of sleep deprivation as well as smoking, alcohol, obesity, poor nutrition and chronic stress, it can lead to much more serious health diseases and illnesses. Additionally, sleep loss negatively affected heart-rate variability (a marker for increased stress), telomere health (key sign of ageing) and negatively impacted their gut micro-biome (our 2nd brain).

All-in-all, a lack of sleep can be detrimental to our overall health and well-being and can lead to serious health defects. Being constantly in a state of sleep deprivation, heightened stress, increased inflammation and hunger can and will severely damage our physical, mental and emotional health.

So, let’s speak about getting enough sleep. Let’s start by asking how much sleep is enough. Most researchers will say that getting between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep per night is ideal. And in an ideal world it would be. That said, with the modern, western work/life schedule that isn’t always possible or thought of as being productive. Sleep is often viewed through the lens of laziness and being a sloth. In today’s world, it is the first thing to go out the window when we are backed up with work or if we want to spend more time with friends and family. Furthermore, the idea that we must get 7.5-9 hours of unbroken sleep is a very modern concept stemming from the industrial age and the implementation of the standardised work day. Looking at ancient tribes and cultures which are closest to our natural way of being, they often slept for 5-6 hours during the night, broken into two, 2-3 hours bouts as well as having a nap during the day. We can still see remnants of this practice in the Spanish and Egyptian cultures who sleep 5-6 hours during the night and have a siesta of approximately 90 minutes during the day. Now I know having a siesta more than likely isn’t possible, but it outlines another way of perceiving how we approach our sleep. Bottom line is, we don’t need 7.5-9 hours unbroken sleep every night. A better way of viewing your sleep volume is by viewing it over a full week rather than day-to-day. In order to do this, we must break down what sleep is and the various cycles we go through.

During sleep, we go through different phases of sleep, these are called Non-REM sleep and REM sleep. Non-REM sleep consists of 3 distinct stages and REM consists of 1 stage creating a total of 4 stages.

NREM Stage 1 – Transition from being awake to sleep. This is a very light or drowsy stage and the person is easily stimulated.

NREM Stage 2 – Light sleep. Awakenings and arousal’s do not occur as easily during this stage. Body temperature decreases and heart rate begins to slow. Completing this stage increases your ability to learn new things.

NREM Stage 3 – Deep NREM sleep. This is the most restorative stage of sleep which consists of Delta brain waves. Awakenings and arousal’s are rare in this stage and it is difficult to wake someone. This is the stage that sleep walking and talking occur. This is when the brain stores memories.

REM Sleep – Known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This is also known as the dreaming stage. Brain activity is heightened as well as eye movement. REM sleep helps you unlearn and process trauma which is very healing. If you drink alcohol prior to sleeping this phase is impacted the most.

One full sleep cycle is complete when a person moves through stages 1-4. Stage 1 is often the shortest but allows the person to move into stage 2, where we spend 40-60% of our time asleep. Stage 3 makes up 5-15% of sleep time for adults and longer for children, adolescents and those recovering from sleep deprivation. REM sleep can occur at any time but usually not until 90 minutes into the sleep. The average time for a human to complete 1 sleep cycle is 90 minutes.

The author of the book Sleep and consultant for Manchester United and the GB cycling team, Nick Littlehales has proposed a model of polyphasic sleep which counts the number of sleep cycles one gets over a full week rather than the total hours per night. Littlehales proposes a total of 35 sleep cycles or points per week minimum. Broken down, this equals 5 sleep cycles per night or 7.5 hours. The model is more flexible however and a short 30-minute nap also equals 1 point. This means that if you only manage 6 hours for 4 points during the night, a 30-minute nap during the day will get you to 5 points and on track to hitting the target of 35 points. This method allows for a lot more flexibility during the weekly schedule than your typical must get 8 hours a night every night.

Additionally, I’d like to address the stigma around getting more sleep. Oftentimes when people have a lie in or a nap, they are guilt tripped either by their spouse or greater society over doing so. This is nonsense! Looking at the disastrous possibilities of sleep deprivation it’s safe to say that if you are tired, hit the hay and recover! Your mind, body and people around you will be grateful for it.

Let’s address the positive effects of optimising your sleep duration and quality. Just as sleep deprivation can be detrimental to our health, optimal sleep can be the most restorative healing aid and performance enhancer for our systems. The primary benefits of getting enough sleep are:

  • Increased and consistent energy levels throughout the day without the dreaded afternoon crash.

  • Increased cognitive function; enhanced focus, memory, attention, decision-making, will-power and ability to learn. If any part of your work or day is mentally stimulating this will be a great benefit. Even if it’s simply choosing a healthier meal at lunch you will have the will-power and discipline to make that decision.

  • Improved ability to rise early, refreshed. Imagine waking up feeling refreshed, energised and ready to attack the day instead of rolling out of bed desperate for the coffee machine.

  • Improved mood, emotional and hormonal regulation. Increased sleep has incredible effects on your emotional health. You are better able to regulate hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, (higher amounts equal increased feelings of joy, happiness and peace whereas lower levels are consistent with depression, sadness, melancholy and anxiety), testosterone and estrogen, our reproductive hormones, as well as cortisol and melatonin which are responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm and stress levels.

  • Better regulation of hunger and satiety leading to better regulation of eating habits and portion sizes. This ultimately leads to optimal nutrition choices which can help with weight problems and nutrition related diseases such as diabetes.

  • Reduced risk of mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia later in life.

  • Improved regulation of inflammation and stress levels. The body has adequate time to remove any toxins and waste products from the blood leading to faster recovery and improved growth and repair of muscle and joint tissues.

  • Improved lymphatic system function. Your lymphatic system or the body’s garbage disposal has ample time to remove any toxic waste products from your system that arise from exercising or eating.

  • Improved immune system function. Your immune system is better able to fight off any disease which may arise in the body because of improved function and regulation of white blood cells.

  • Reduced ageing time. As mentioned earlier, telomeres which are strands of DNA which cap off our chromosomes become healthier and longer the more sleep we get. Shorter telomeres are the biggest indicator for early ageing. So improved sleep equals fewer grey hairs, fewer wrinkles, improved skin quality, and decreased risk of disease. This includes cancer as healthy cells are less likely to malfunction or mutate when dividing. There is something to the phrase “beauty-sleep” after all!

  • Processing of trauma and emotionally charged events. One of the primary reasons why psychologists believe we dream is to allow our subconscious process the happenings from the previous day. This allows is to process any emotionally-charged events and store any important information to memory.

  • Reduced risk of injury. If you partake in any form of exercise or training. Increasing the amount of sleep, you get to the recommended amount drastically reduces your risk of injury. That means if you’re playing sport or just love working out you will have reduced risk of picking up a side-lining injury allowing you to play to the best of your ability for the whole year/season!

The benefits of optimal sleep quality and duration are endless, I mean endless! Unfortunately, sleep is often passed off and put to the back-burner in our increasingly busy lives. This has thrown off our systems to a large degree and planted the foundations for the alarming increase in chronic, life-threatening diseases. Even as they rise, it is worrying that many doctors will go straight for the prescription meds to treat the symptoms without searching for the underlying problem which more than likely is lifestyle and sleep related. Now it’s time you take your health into your own hands and not rely 100% on the Government or medical GP’s. Starting by optimising your sleep, the best health regulator you have access to. And best of all, it is 100% free! Now that we’ve outlined the incredible benefits of optimising your sleep, let’s look at some optimal practices you can begin implementing right away.