As evolution constantly takes place, many processes within the human body are refined, however, the one that leaves us most vulnerable has always remained essential - SLEEP.
How refreshed do you feel after a night's sleep? Can you wake without an alarm clock? Are you someone who needs a dose of caffeine before you're able to concentrate in the morning? Don't worry if you answered yes to any, or all, of these questions. You are not alone. More than half of adults fail to have the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, and feel unrefreshed on a daily basis. But, how much does sleep actually matter anyway?
It turns out that sleep is not just a passive process. Our brains are busy handling the days memories, filing them away in our 'hard-drives' whilst the body is also doing a nightly tidy up of all the remnants accrued throughout the day that otherwise slow our systems down. Not having adequate amounts of sleep can impact many systems within us, including our immune system, which is more important than ever right now.
A top neuroscientist, Matthew Walker, has published an incredibly powerful, informative, and accessible book on all the different ways that sleep, and a lack of it, can impact human health and wellbeing. 'Why we sleep' covers the effects of sleep on the immune system, memory, obesity, Alzheimer's development, blood sugar, depression, and more. It's all explained in a very easily understood format, broken down into sections, although I challenge you to not read it in only a couple of sittings!
I'll just mention a couple of studies that he talks about to give you an idea of how compelling the evidence that he uses is.
If you remember the last time you had the flu I imagine you felt horrible and just wanted to sleep? That was your body trying to give itself time to recover. A doctor in California, Dr. Aric Prather, clearly showed the impact of a lack of sleep on chances of developing the common cold. He tracked the normal sleep patterns of 150 healthy men and women for a week, and then squirted a dose of rhinovirus (common cold) up their noses. He subsequently kept them in the lab for the following week and very thoroughly monitored them, and their snotty secretions, to see if they had 'caught a cold'. When he retrospectively apportioned the individuals into groups, based on the amount of sleep they had experienced in the first week, prior to virus exposure, he saw that there was a very clear relationship. As the amount of sleep increased, the chances of becoming infected with the virus, and developing a cold, decreased. The infection rate was almost 50% in individuals who were sleeping less than five hours a night, lowering to 18% in those getting seven or more hours a night. Compelling, hey?
Another aspect of health that sleep can detrimentally impact is weight gain. Have you ever felt hungrier after having a disturbed night of sleep? Well the research is there to help explain why that is, and also, why it could lead to waistlines increasing. Another doctor in America, Dr. Eve Van Cauter carried out a couple of experiments on healthy individuals to try and understand the relationship between sleep and hunger. For the initial five nights, the individuals had an eight-and-a-half hour sleep opportunity, followed by four to five hours of sleep for the second batch of five nights. In the first experiment, the participants felt hungrier with less sleep even though they had eaten and exercised the same amount as when they were in the longer sleep pattern. Van Cauter additionally discovered that the levels of hormones controlling hunger and satiety (fullness) - ghrelin and leptin - were dysregulated, leading to the experienced loss of hunger control. In the second
experiment, the individuals again acted as their own control, experiencing both sleep patterns, and Van Cauter monitored how many calories they ate within a four day period during each sleep pattern, when they had free access to food. Can you guess the result? You got it! When experiencing a shortened amount of sleep, an extra 300 calories were consumed each day, amounting to over 1000 calories by the end of the experiment. When scaled up to the time course of a year, and based on caloric estimates, this could lead to a weight gain of 10 to 15 pounds each year. A fact not to be ignored!
Walker discusses so many more fascinating aspects of the impact sleep can have on our bodies and minds, all backed up by scientific evidence. He finishes by giving his top tips of how to improve your chances of restful sleep:
Stick to a sleep schedule.
Try to exercise daily although not too close to bedtime.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
Avoid eating a large meal or drink late at night.
Avoid medicines that may delay / disrupt sleep (if possible).
Don't nap after 3pm.
Relax before bed.
Take a hot bath before bed.
Have a dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom.
Get the right sunlight exposure.
Don't lie in bed awake.
I thoroughly recommend reading his book to learn more about how sleep can benefit you and your health, especially if you have children, as the impacts on memory and learning are quite astounding. Happy reading! Night, night!
*Click on the picture below to link through to Amazon where you can get his book.