Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Doctor Izzy Smith
Health & Wellness Contributor - Ethical Kollektiv
The Importance of Sleep
Adequate sleep is vital for health and performance and thus it seem an irony that the more we learn of its importance, the less sleep we seem to be having. Sleep has puzzled both scientists and philosophers for hundreds if not thousands of years. Sleep was considered so important that in Greek mythology the god “Hypnos” was literally dedicated to sleep and across multiple cultures dreaming was considered an avenue to connect with the gods. Nor is it surprising that poems and stories of the insanity one feels when deprived of sleep go back several hundreds of years.
In the past 50 years our understanding of the importance of sleep has grown exponentially, despite this, we are still not entirely sure of its exact biological function. To put it bluntly, we’re not exactly sure why we sleep?
There have been many theories but popular ones with the most scientific plausibility in descending order are…
Memory/knowledge consolidation i.e. helping us process information and learn new things. This theory might explain why we require more sleep when we’re young.
To clear out junk/debris from our neurons (brain cells) such as the dementia causing proteins beta amyloid and Tau. This theory might explain why sleep deprivation has been linked to dementia in several observational studies.
For various restorative functions like growth and recovery. This is supported by findings that processes like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.
To keep us safe and preserve energy at night. Before the lightbulb we couldn’t get much done in the dark so staying awake at night was biologically pointless and potentially dangerous!
Although we’re still not entirely sure of its exact biological and evolutionary purpose, we do know many of the short- and long-term side effects of sleep deprivation.
In the short term, sleep deprivation activates genes that impair optimal brain activity and interferes with our cells ability to communicate with each other. Consequently, our reaction times are slower as are essentially every other cognitive function.
Some of the world’s most accomplished thinkers and innovators have sited sleep as part of their success, including Bill Gates who quoted “I like to get seven hours of sleep a night because that’s what I need to stay sharp and creative and upbeat.” Who knows, maybe if Bill has been a 6 hour a night type of guy I wouldn’t have the ease of MS office currently helping me punch out this blog! Not everyone manages 7 hours a night and thus it’s no surprise that fatigue now causes more road fatalities than drinking driving and several major industrial disasters were associated with sleep deprivation. The nuclear explosion Chernobyl, the space shuttle “Challenger” disaster or the Exxon
Valdez Oil Spill which saw staff completing 22 hour shifts loading barrels of crude oil, all 250,000 of which ended up in the ocean, were all associated with lack of sleep and odd working hours.
As well as keeping us safe, sleep is also very important for our mood. Hormone production of serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol are impacted by sleep deprivation and essentially why it’s easier to feel depressed, flat and stressed when we’re tired. Studies on couples have shown people are much more likely to fight when sleep deprived and workplace relations also suffer from a sleep deprived office. Sleep deprivation also plays havoc to the hormones that control our appetite (Leptin, ghrelin and insulin) and a study of 60,000 nurses over 16 years showed nurses who slept less than 6 hours a
night vs those who slept more than 7, were 15% more chance of obesity. Thus, anyone wanting to lose a few kgs should be focussing on not just nutrition and exercise, but also on increasing their Zzzs.
In the longer-term sleep deprivation increases the risk of almost all chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure, depression + more.
So, if all this is true… why the hell aren’t we sleeping more?
Well its complex, but let’s go back to a clever guy called Thomas Edison. He was also the guy who invented the lightbulb which led to our ability to work 24/7, an industrial revolution and life as we now know it today. For many millennia before this, we naturally followed our bodies circadian rhythm, slept when it was dark and respected our need for rest. Whereas now, in a period of less than 200 years since the light bulb was invented, we can literally work, be contacted and connected to the entire world 24/7.
In short, we have lost our relationship with sleep and our mental and
metabolic health is suffering. You may be wondering, if sleep deprivation is so detrimental, why can some people seem to get by on only 3-5 hours per night?
Is it a matter of training ourselves to function on less sleep or improving the quality of our sleep?
Sadly, for all the workaholics out there, the answer is no. This phenomenon is a result of some people naturally carry a genetic mutation that allow them to function on less sleep. Scientists have pinpointed mutations in the DEC2 gene which is associated with hormone orexin that regulates wakefulness, as well as mutations in the ADRB1 gene which regulates noradrenaline. These mutations are rare, only one in several thousand.
Thomas Edison was likely one of these rare few and was a strong proponent of the benefits of minimising sleep. He credited much of his success to his lack of sleep and was vocal in his criticism of those who 8 hours a night, citing them as lazy, wasteful and lacking in determination. Other well-known short sleepers are Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and several corporate CEOS. These rare few are likely what’s led to the notion of surviving on less sleep results in success. For them it’s probable having an extra 4 workable hours a day did support their achievements, however for the rest of us we know from endless amounts of research that it’s the exact opposite. I also wonder if Churchills multiple strokes, Edison’s Diabetes type 2 diabetes or Thatchers early onset
dementia, were associated with their minimalist sleeping habits.
So how do you improve sleep and how much should you have?
Neuroscientists agree that people should aim for at least 7, but 7.5 hours or more is optimal. Sleep hygiene is immensely important and Dr google can easily help with a long list of great tips. Not pressing snooze on your alarm, no coffee after midday, a screen-time curfew, a pre-sleep routine (mine is a nice hot shower) + more. These are all great tips and I’d especially emphasise the importance of having a regular pre-sleep routine, but something often overlooked is the benefits of accountability. Research has shown that for certain personality types, some form of internal or external accountability is vital for healthy habit formation, i.e. helping us follow through with what we know we should be doing!
Technology has caused a lot of the problems we face when it comes to our sleep so its ironic (but not surprising) that technology has come up with some great ways to improve and monitor our sleep.
Through smart watches and phones and apps like Garmin, we can now monitor how long we’ve slept, the quality and type of sleep we’re having as well as how often we wake in the night.
Personally, this has been a game-changer for me. Understanding the various health and performance benefits of sleep, combined with seeing I’ve had 7 or 8 hours of it, feels like I’m getting a little gold start (which in reality is a little burst of the reward hormone dopamine) and motivates me to go to bed early. The contrary is seeing only 5 or 6 which encourages me to make up for it the following night to ensure my weekly average stays above 7!
There are many other ways to create accountability and different things will work for different people, e.g. scheduling bedtime as if it’s a meeting you must go to, a challenge amongst friends or colleagues of who can get to sleep before 10.30 every night (recorded by your smartwatch so no one can cheat!) + more. The reasoning behind accountability is helping to make your health sleep habits as much as a routine as brushing your teeth or putting on your seatbelt so that you can become a sleep superstar without even thinking about it!