Sleep! Something most of us probably acknowledge we need more of, but we’re usually not prepared to actually take action to get more of.

In fact, in most western countries, it is often a matter of pride for people to loudly boast about how little they sleep – as though it is somehow a badge of honor in some way. Much in the same way that some people will proudly talk about working 60-80 hour weeks and go on about how “crazy busy” they are “all the time”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that a lot of jobs actually are crazy busy and people sometimes have to work long hours, but I strongly disagree with it being something we should be proud of or aspire to as a society.

I have tended to put my foot down with regards to my work-life balance in my jobs because I strongly believe there is more to life than a job, and luckily I have an awesome boss now who understands and allows for this (thanks Steve!), but I have also worked in companies/agencies where working long hours was not only highly encouraged, but where, if you ever left at your contracted hour of 5.30pm, you were looked at as a bit of a slacker. Sad right? Which leads me back to the subject of this post – SLEEP. When we work longer hours, in order to have any semblance of a life outside of work, we have to stay up later, and so sleep is the first thing to be sacrificed.

Even though we all know that sleep is essential and that we function better when we have enough of it, we often don’t realise HOW essential it is? I have heard many people talk about “training” themselves to be able to live with less sleep, and even believed (for a time) that maybe this was possible. That we could gradually ween ourselves off a couple hours here and there and one day be fine with only 4 hours a night. Margaret Thatcher famously only slept less than a handful of hours a night.

Also less sleep means more stuff to do right? Imagine all the time I’d have for other things!! Sadly this is not the case. Our bodies are programmed to require a solid night’s sleep every night, whether we like it or not, and if we do not get this, we will suffer in one way or another. “Functioning” is one thing – plenty of people “function” ok with inadequate sleep. They are able to work, work-out, have coherent conversations etc, so they think they’re fine. But what toll is it taking on the body?

I would say that after air and water, sleep is the most essential requirement for the body. And yes I did leave out food. Most people could survive up to a month with no food, but 7-10 days with no sleep would kill you. It is that important!

And not just getting some, but getting ENOUGH. Getting enough sleep is essential for optimum health, optimum physical and mental performance and optimum body composition.

So what’s so great about sleep?

Sleep is essential for the most basic biological functions. It effects neurological performance, immune system function, endocrine and musculoskeletal growth and repair. It also stimulates the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGC), which is essential for cellular regeneration. As we age we produce less and less HGC, which is one of the reasons we show signs of aging. Optimum production of HGC slows this process, so if for no other reason, getting optimum sleep will help you look and feel younger!

Sleep also enhances memory and creative problem solving skills, it helps people see the positive in interactions, it boosts athletic performance and enhances overall mood and energy.

And gentlemen – one study linked solid sleep with higher levels of testosterone in older men.

And what’s so bad about not sleeping enough?

As I said above, you will die of sleep deprivation sooner than you would die of starvation. But obviously few people reach that point. What about just skimping on sleep – putting in that all-nighter, months of newborn-induced sleep deprivation, staying up late to watch just one more TV show? You end up feeling awful because every system in your body is genuinely struggling. Over time memory abilities suffer, the generation of nerve cells is impaired and we become at greater risk for psychological conditions such as depression. Even a single night of bad sleep can throw off our emotional state by shutting down the prefrontal cortex (responsible for reasonable behavior) and using the amygdala to put us into primal survival mode. This compromises our behavior and our ability to interact with others. Not only that, but a single night of sleep loss increases systemic inflammation and hinders the body’s ability to handle oxidative stress. It also increases our risk for a host of life-style diseases such as diabetes, heart-disease and obesity.

And just as getting enough sleep slows the aging process, the converse is also true. Lack of sleep actually increases the signs of aging. Not only that, but it affects our ability to maintain a healthy weight by increasing our insulin resistance. Just as you can’t out-train a bad diet, eating well will not counteract a lack of sleep. Hence the expression “get your beauty sleep”.

Ok ok, so we need it, but how do we get more of it?

Here are some tips for getting a good night sleep:

1. Sleep in a dark room. Melatonin, the hormone that induces drowsiness, is produced in darkness. Blue light inhibits production of the hormone so avoid strong light bulbs, TV, laptops in bed – anything that will hinder the production of this important hormone.

2. Set yourself a bedtime – preferably before midnight. There is a saying: “an hour before midnight is worth 2 after”. This is due to the body’s natural cycle of hormonal release at different times of the day and how these affect the depth and quality of our sleep. This means our best sleep occurs when we keep consistent with the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

3. Think ahead to the next morning and time your bedtime to allow yourself enough sleep so you can wake up naturally if possible (and without the use of an alarm clock).

4. Turn off electronic gadgets and dim lights an hour before bedtime to get your hormones in gear so you can fall asleep quickly and deeply when bedtime arrives.

5. Reduce caffeine intake – try to restrict caffeinated drinks to mornings only and know your limit. Caffeine can profoundly affect the quality and ability to sleep.

6. Get enough exercise – for some it helps to exercise before bed, for others it keeps them awake. Either way, some exercise (whether during the day or in the evening) will help you overall when it comes to sleep. And sleep will help you exercise better, so it’s a win win situation!

So, if you want to have a healthy immune system, a sharp mind, have a positive outlook on life, stay young, avoid putting on weight, improve your memory and athletic performance, (to name a few), GO TO BED! 

Further research:

A great book to read: Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival