Among all the responsibilities we have in a given day, sleep tends to be the first thing we put on the chopping block. The ironic part is that while it’s the first thing we opt to give up, it’s one of the most nourishing things we can do for our bodies. Getting enough quality sleep may not be possible every single night, but if gone unchecked for too long, inadequate sleep can compound into a variety of immediate and long-term health problems.
The science behind sleep
When we sleep, there are 5 distinct stages that we cycle through. Throughout the night, sleep is cycled from light to deep to REM and back again, with each cycle averaging about 90 minutes. Throughout the night, the time spent in deep sleep lessens and the time spent in REM sleep increases, so the first third of the night includes the deepest sleep and the last third includes the most REM sleep.
Stage 1: The beginning stage is when we drift into a light sleep and muscle activity starts to ease up.
Stage 2: In this phase, the brain waves continue to slow down, heart rate decreases, and body temperature drops in preparation to enter into a deeper sleep.
Stage 3: This is the beginning of deeper sleep, also known as delta sleep, and is when our brain waves slow down even more. This stage is pinnacle as it’s when the body begins to release a surge of growth hormone to help repair the body.
Stage 4: In stage 4 of deep sleep, the brain moves to exclusively produce slow delta waves while muscle activity ceases. At this stage it can be difficult to wake a person up.
Stage 5 (REM Sleep): During REM sleep, brain waves speed up, metabolic rate increases and there is more reliance on the sympathetic nervous system. The brain is more active, contributing to the “rapid eye movement” that marks this stage as well as the dreams most people experience in this phase.
All sleep stages considered, sleep quantity and quality are equally important. Sleep quantity ensures the body has sufficient time to transition through the cycles of sleep at least 2-3 times per night, while sleep quality is important because it allows one to move through the various sleep stages and gain the physical and mental benefits of each stage of sleep.
Why we can’t get to sleep
While there is an array of things that can get in the way of quality sleep, many times it comes down to lifestyle habits and your environment. All things considered, these habits or routines can sometimes go unnoticed, be ignored or simply can’t be avoided given life’s responsibilities. Everyone is unique in their own way, but I’ve come to notice a few common personas when it comes to what’s behind someone’s challenges with sleep.
Overcommitted and spread thin: likely to live by the motto “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” this person may argue there are not enough hours in the day to get things done. While the eagerness to do it all isn’t a bad thing, if taken too far, this overstimulated lifestyle can perpetuate reckless and unhealthy sleeping habits.
Self-proclaimed night owl: we all know one and we may even consider ourselves as one. This busy body has learned and become accustomed to surviving off of 6 hours or less of sleep a night. While caffeine is a likely suspect contributing to this person’s increasing sleep debt, endorphins from late-night workouts and elevated stress can lead to sleep issues.
The hit-or-miss model: Sometimes mistaken for a night owl, this person’s sleeping routine is as inconsistent as they come. Typically an unintentional habit, having a regular bedtime is not high on this person’s priority list. One evening they may be up aimlessly scrolling through social media or watching a movie before falling asleep at 1 a.m., while the next night they may be snoozing by 9 p.m.
The around-the-clock caregiver: the to-do list is never-ending and once you’re able to finish up and leave work, you’re abruptly onto the next thing: chauffeuring kids around, making dinner, feeding the baby and putting the kids down. It’s not until later in the evening that you can maybe take a minute for yourself, and if you’re looking to get some quality time with a spouse or partner, that time will typically cut into your sleep time.
Why sleep deprivation is detrimental
If wakefulness had a currency, the only acceptable payment would be sleep. Through sleep, our body has the chance to remedy and regulate its internal systems so we can optimally function. When we don’t get this time, our body misses out on essential windows of time when it can recalibrate, balance flushes away toxins and stabilizes hormones.
Cognitive Function & Memory
Lack of sleep significantly impairs our emotional stability, mental alertness, long-term memories and ability to learn. Neurocognitive functions, like short-term memory and high-level functions that require us to pay attention to several things at once, become increasingly vulnerable when we experience sleep loss. Studies continue to show that when we miss out on a night of sleep and opt to get behind the wheel, it’s comparative to a person who is driving drunk.
When it comes to our mood and overall happiness, some scientists hypothesize that sleep replenishes neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which facilitates various critical brain functions. When we’re deprived of sleep, nerve activity becomes dampened and we can become less motivated, less quick-thinking and more vulnerable to negative moods. What’s more, sleep is a critical time for our brain to flush away harmful toxins that build up while we’re awake. During sleep the space for cerebrospinal fluid increases and allows unnecessary byproducts to be flushed away. These byproducts include toxic proteins that have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, meaning without adequate time to flush these toxins out during sleep, they can build up overtime and increase our chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
During sleep we produce fresh neurotransmitters that help regulate hormone production. Without adequate sleep, hormones can become imbalanced and lead to overeating, increased stress, weight gain, blood sugar problems and other health complications.
Ghrelin and Leptin: the hunger and appetite hormones
There’s a significant correlation between sleep shortage and appetite. Recent studies have shown that our “appetite-regulating hormones,” ghrelin and leptin, are profoundly influenced by sleep duration. Leptin is a hormone that signals satiety or the “I’m full” message to our brains, while Ghrelin is our “hunger hormone” that signals our brains that we’re hungry.
Melatonin: the natural sleep hormone
The production or melatonin is affected by a variety of factors, but the most controllable is our exposure to artificial light after sunset. Prolonged exposure suppresses melatonin secretion, which affects the body’s ability to enter sleep efficiently and can even contribute to insulin and blood sugar problems.
Insulin: the hormone to help regulate blood sugar
Failing to get adequate sleep for even a few nights has been found to significantly impact the body’s ability to manage its blood sugar levels, which can lead to insulin resistance. This progressive resistance leads to numerous ailments such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, metabolic syndrome, and many more conditions.
Cortisol: the stress hormone
Our bodies naturally respond to stress with the assistance of our cortisol hormone. While natural level of cortisol is highest in the morning, gradually tapering off throughout the day, it lowers at night to help us prepare for restful sleep. For those in sleep debt, cortisol levels remain elevated during the night and interfere with falling asleep. Beyond missing out on sleep, this increase in cortisol can lead to an increase in belly fat, which is detrimental for overall health given its association with inflammation and obesity.
During sleep, our immune system undergoes preventative maintenance. In fact, during sleep our body produces cytokines, which are cellular hormones that help your immune system fight off infections. What’s more, sleep is when human growth hormone (HGH) is produced to help repair our muscles and tissues.
However, when we cut ourselves short on sleep, the consequences can extend far beyond the common cold or flu. Studies have linked lack of sleep with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer. Moreover, shortened sleeping routines have been connected to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, while the complexity of hormone imbalances have been linked to cancer progression.
What are tangible ways to improve sleep quality?
Knowing the immediate and long-term severity of sleep deprivation, the consequences demand intentionality when it comes to our sleeping behaviors and mindset. Instead of thinking of sleep as just downtime or another to-do, consider how important of an investment it is to you and your health and wellbeing.
While life won’t slow down for anyone for the sake of restful sleep, there are still simple ways throughout the day that you can improve your sleeping habits and set yourself up for success:
During the day:
- Take your a.m. supplements
- Exercise: Get moving to help manage stress and cultivate hormonal balance
- Limit process foods and instead focus on fibrous veggies, adequate protein and healthy fats
- Avoid caffeine
- Get some sun
- Take your p.m. supplements
- Avoid the nightcaps, sip on tea instead
- Decrease blue light,especially in the hour or two prior to bed
- Slow down and unplug, take a bath, journal or meditate
- Set an alarm so you can stick to a regular routine
Make your bedroom a sleep haven:
- Turn down the temperature
- Block the light to ensure a totally dark room
In health, Anika Christ – Director – Digital Programming & Events – Life Time Weight Loss
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.