To Get Healthy, Get your ZZZZs
It’s nine p.m. on Sunday night. The kids are finally asleep. Now you can start preparing for the week ahead. Dishes, laundry and lunches need some attention. Now where did you leave that permission slip for their school trip to the museum? Ugh! Is it already after eleven? Hopefully the boys will stay in their beds tonight, because Mommy needs some sleep! Sound familiar yet?
Sleep – the one thing (besides money) that everyone wants more of. Like the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat, if you deprive yourself long enough, a lack of sleep can kill you. There are people with fatal familial insomnia, and chronically sleep-deprived laboratory animals eventually die. So why do we insist on continually burning the midnight oil? If our survival is dependent on sleep, what could going without it possibly be doing to our bodies and brains? In humans, sleep plays two important roles:
1. Sleep allows your body to heal and fight off infections
Sleep is an anabolic state when the body is in “repair mode”. Therefore, if you deprive yourself of sleep, you’re preventing your body from repairing itself. In rats, sleep deprivation is associated with a 20% decrease in white blood cell count, making it more difficult to fight off infections. Sleep-deprived rats will develop skin lesions, and their healing rate is also much slower.
People who are sleep deprived are more likely to suffer from diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and consume more alcohol. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis often have sleep problems. In these patients, symptoms are strongly influenced by their previous night’s sleep. A good night’s sleep means fewer symptoms the following day.
2. Sleep improves learning and memory
While you’re sleeping, your brain is strengthening pathways in your brain. These pathways represent memories. Different stages of sleep are important for the creation/strengthening of different types of memories. During your “deep sleep” (also called slow-wave sleep), your brain is forming memories about WHAT you know (e.g., what you had for dinner, the state capital, etc.). During your REM sleep (when you dream), your brain is forming memories about HOW to do things (how to ride a bike, how to perform burpies) and emotionally charged events (a disagreement with your partner, a recent car accident).
Sleep deprivation makes your brain much less efficient. Brain imaging studies show that sleep-deprived individuals have to recruit more brain areas than well-rested individuals to learn a new task or digest a piece of information. These studies suggest that sleep-deprived individuals have to work harder at learning and remembering. Also, sleep-deprived individuals aren’t as good at multi-tasking, generating solutions to problems or remembering a list of words. If sleep is so important for memory, why do students continue to pull “all-nighters” before a big exam? Perhaps a better strategy is to “sleep on it”.
Improve your Sleep
Adults should be getting between seven to eight hours of sleep a night (and more if you’re pregnant!). Children need at least 11 hours a night, and teens between 9 to 10 hours. Here are a few simple tips to help you get your ZZZZs.
- 1. Keep a regular schedule. Go to bed and get up at a fixed time every day (including weekends!)
- 2. Naturally regulate your sleep cycle. Increase light exposure during the day by keeping the curtains open or spending more time outside. Minimize light exposure during the night by turning off your TV or computer and avoid reading from a backlit device (e.g., your iPad). This will help your body naturally regulate its melatonin production, which plays a role in healthy sleep.
- 3. Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a bath or warm shower, read a book, do some light stretches – whatever helps you relax and unwind. Do NOT work in bed. You want your brain to associate your bed with sleep, not with the stresses of work.
- 4. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise. Avoid big meals, alcohol and too many liquids before bed. Quit smoking. Get about 20 to 30 minutes of activity per day (even if it’s five minutes here and ten minutes there). Try taking the stairs or going for a brisk walk during your lunch break. Time spent chasing your children around the house also counts!