Editors note: I am not a medical practitioner nor am I certified in nutrition or health. Through research, personal experience and testimonies from others I've written this post. If you plan to make any changes to your lifestyle I recommend talking with your doctor to make sure this is the right step to becoming healthy for you.
We’ve all been there. Hanging out at a concert or a bar at 2 in the morning, wondering when we can get home and get into bed. Our head feels foggy, our muscles ache, our eyes doing everything they can to stay open. The thought of dragging yourself to your bed to get under those covers and close your eyes sounds like winning the lottery.
So what is it about sleep that makes us feel this way? Why after 16 hours of being awake do we crave that stillness so much so that our body will force us into it?
Sleep, like so much of our body, is a magical thing.
Let’s start with the phases of sleep and what they are (and why your dad doesn't always wake up from his own snoring).
In the first phase of sleep, non-REM, we go through four stages: awake, light sleep, deep sleep, and deeper sleep. In the second stage of non-REM, this is when our breathing slows down, and our body temperature drops (up to 3 degrees). As you fall into deeper forms of sleep different parts of your body start repairing themselves; the most repairs are happening in the next phase, REM.
REM, Rapid Eye Movement, is the phase of sleep where you are in your deepest sleep. The breath increases during this phase and the body become paralyzed, so you don’t hurt the person next to you as you dream about being Superman! (Also why your dad can sleep through his snores).
Throughout the night these cycles continue to repeat themselves until the melatonin in your body drops, your cortisol hormone starts to activate, and the temperature (not the light) rises, waking you up.
So how much time should you be giving your body to go in and out of these cycles? 7-8 hours minimum.
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, one of the leading experts on sleep and the author of Why We Sleep, talks about the importance of sleep and the effects it has on our brain and body.
For example, with one hour less of sleep a night (six hours total) the chance of a heart attack increases. A nationwide study done twice a year to prove this, called daylight savings, has proven the change in heart health by just a single hour of sleep. In the Spring, when we lose an hour, the rise in heart attacks increases by 24% while in the Fall, it drops 21%.
Less sleep will suppress hormones making you eat more and crave the bad stuff (simple carbs). It lowers your cancer-fighting cells since they don’t get the chance to repair cell damage and DNA damage and your gut doesn’t get the chance to repair itself causing an increase in stomach problems such as leaky gut and IBS. And that’s just the start. (Stay tuned for part-2 where I go into more detail on this).
One of the most obvious issues that come with a lack of sleep is your brain function. With only four hours of sleep, your brain is the equivalent to a drunk driver. Just think about your drive home from a friend’s house at two in the morning, where you weren’t even drinking. We’ve all made that drive and the swerving or falling asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than being drunk. When driving drunk, your responses are delayed, meaning you hit the breaks late. As a tired driver, you’re asleep, meaning you don’t even touch your breaks.
A study in 1942 showed that the average American got 7.9 hours of sleep. Today (2018) the average American gets 6.5 hours of sleep. And that’s the average, meaning that a whole lot more people are getting less than that.
If you are trying to lose weight, get healthy, or just have normal brain function you need those 7-8 hours (preferably 8) of sleep to achieve any of this. Your body needs time to restore itself, to rebuild itself and to get your hormones on track to help you achieve your health and wellness goals. For a society so obsessed with weight, it’s really amazing we aren’t more obsessed with sleep because the two go hand in hand.
And the truth is, getting more sleep shouldn't be that hard.
The best way to set yourself up for a good nights sleep is to make sure your bedroom is nice and cold. In the summer, open the window or turn the A/C on so that your room can drop a few degrees, helping your core temperature to drop. Make sure there is no light in your room. Remove, your phone or clocks or any electronics that produce a light. You can invest in blackout curtain or, with less of an investment, get an eye mask to keep the light out. Be sure to not eat 2 hours before bed to allow your digestion to take a break and repair itself. This will also help you get better sleep. And don't exercise before bed, this will bring your core temperature up and your body is trying to make it drop so that you can sleep. As you've probably heard, turning off all blue lights or wearing the silly blue light filtering sunglasses one hour before going to bed will help with turning off the right hormones in your body and signaling that it's time to go to bed.
If these suggestions still aren't enough to help you sleep try taking a supplement like Magnesium Glycinate (300mg for women, 400mg for men.) Magnesium helps the muscles and brain to relax and is one of the nutrients that many Americans are short on (because it's found in those leafy greens you refuse to eat). Another great option is taking 5-HTP to help in producing your melatonin or Magnolia Bark which is effective in keeping you asleep by relaxing your cortisol levels.
As you start to find your own health routine and figure out the first steps to getting healthy, my suggestion would be to start with your sleep. Schedule it in, protect it with your life, and don’t let anyone take it from you. Your sleep is your first step to living a healthy and successful (however you define that) life. Take care of it.