The importance of getting a good night’s sleep

 In Opinion

Do you feel as though you got enough sleep this week?  The answer is likely no. But I bet you heard someone bragging about running on minimal sleep.  That’s the world we live in. Time is precious, and so we sacrifice our sleep. What could go wrong?

Well, after millennia of not understanding what sleep really does, we finally have some answers. It turns out sleep is extremely beneficial and that cutting short a good night’s slumber creates serious health consequences. Even those who are getting just shy of a regular seven hours are linked to higher rates of cancer, Alzheimer disease, blood sugar imbalances, cardiovascular disease and stroke, not to mention the daily hazards of walking around with a tired, overworked brain, a bad memory, trouble focusing, poor cognition, irrationality… the list goes on.

Many of us have been sacrificing our sleep for so long, it’s hard to accept these findings. That’s because our bodies have made tiredness the new normal. We can’t remember what it is like to feel truly rested and alert. 

So let’s quickly review the science on what is happening when we sleep.

All animals have a built in 24-hour clock that determines when we want to be awake and when we want to sleep. It’s called a circadian rhythm and everyone’s is unique (there really is a difference between morning people and night owls). Whichever camp you fall into, the human mind and body still need at least eight hours of good sleep each day to function properly. Let’s break down those eight hours to better understand why they are so essential.

Sleep happens in phases, with each phase creating different benefits. Early on in the night, in deep wave or NREM sleep is more prevalent, your unconscious brain is alive with activity, sorting and memorizing the facts and faces you’ve learned – linking information and making space for new ideas. Later in the night, when REM sleep is more dominant, the brain is sharpening skills like motor skill memory (aka muscle memory). And throughout the night, you’re cycling between these states; flushing its systems, checking in on hormone levels and creating new pathways in the brain to better understand what happened today and further equip you for tomorrow.  

A typical night’s sleep cycles between these states several times. A shortened night’s sleep does not contain as many of these cycles and nor does it contain as many deep states of sleep. That carries consequences. For example, during sleep we regulate a hormone that tells us when we are hungry. The less you sleep, the more you will eat. The more you eat… exactly.

Sleep also regulates the relationship between our emotional response and the part of our brain responsible for rational decision making. Sleep less and your temper will be shorter, your decisions more impulsive.  

There is so much we still don’t know about sleep but based on what we do know, it is time we all made those eight hours a real priority.

Here are a few hints to help you get more sleep:

1. Avoid napping or caffeine after 3 p.m. In addition to the circadian rhythm, our sleep-wake cycle is assisted by adenosine, a chemical that builds up in the brain and creates sleep pressure when you are awake. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, hence its perky effect. Late afternoon napping also interferes with your build-up of sleep pressure.

2. Create a bedtime routine and try to avoid alcohol or bright screens before bed.

3. Always get into bed at least nine hours before you are required to rise.

4. Spend time outside every day. Sun exposure, especially in the morning, is crucial in helping to determine your sleep/wake cycle.

For more information, I recommend reading Why We Sleep by Mathew Walker, a leading researcher in sleep science.  It opened my eyes to the latest sleep research and reminded me just how important sleep is in the bigger picture of health. 

Maggie Pattillo is a Naturopathic Doctor at StoneTree Clinic in Collingwood. She and her colleague Bronwyn Hill both live in the Creemore.

Some Common Myths:

#1 Older people need less sleep. Not true. Sleep quality can decline with age, which makes it even more important that you are getting the proper sleep quantity – at least 8 hours.

#2 Sleeping pills are okay. Sleeping pills are not okay. The sleep they induce is not natural, meaning the physical and mental benefits of sleep are diminished.

#3 If I wake up in the night, I should take a melatonin. Don’t! As you sleep, your melatonin levels decline. Giving yourself a spike in the middle of the night is counter to your body’s rhythm.

#4 I’m just one of those people who only need 6 hours. Maybe. But more likely you just don’t remember what it feels like to function on a full night’s sleep. Try giving yourself a sleep window of 8 hours a night for a few weeks to see how it feels.   

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