Considering it’s one of the most natural things the human body is designed to do, entirely too many people (an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans) struggle with sleep. Everybody’s met somebody that swears they’re totally fine with 4-6 hours of sleep and wears it like a badge of honor. Then there are the people that would LOVE to sleep but stare at the ceiling for hours on end stressing about everything they’re afraid they won’t get done the next day. And let’s not forget every parent for whom sleep seems like a myth in which they once believed. Whatever the reason, we need to stop letting life get in the way of living it optimally.
Let’s start with the “I’m good with 4 hours” crowd. Unfortunately, science begs to differ. One study out of Harvard observed a group of healthy young men who were restricted to 4 hours of sleep for 6 nights. In just 6 days, every one of them developed symptoms of pre-diabetes as a result of reduced insulin sensitivity. Fortunately, symptoms abated as quickly as they came on once the men returned to a healthy, 8 hour sleep schedule but it makes you wonder: What’s happening in those missing hours and why is it so important?
I’m glad you asked. Every night while we sleep, our glymphatic system (not a typo, it’s a real thing) goes to work. Its sole purpose is to clear our brains of the toxins we accumulate throughout the day. We have specialized cells (astrocytes) that scrub off built up cellular debris and cerebrospinal fluid to wash it all away. This process takes time. When we limit the amount of time our brains have to wash and reset, we start to accumulate excess plaque and detritus which leads to premature brain aging. Fun Fact: Part of the waste we clear out every night are B-amyloid plaques, the core proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
In another study by researchers for the UPenn School of Medicine, cognition was tested in participants divided into groups who either slept 6 hours per night or none at all. The results were remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, the study observed that participants who slept 6 hours per night performed at the same level as participants who were completely deprived of sleep for 48 hours. Second, and arguably the more surprising discovery however was that the 6 hour group was largely unaware that their performance had been impaired in any way. Subjectively, they believed they were performing adequately on their tests when, in fact, their cognitive abilities had been significantly compromised.
Time and again studies have consistently shown that it doesn’t take a prolonged period of time for damage to present itself. According to Dr. Stephanie Estima,
So not only do you not realize when you’re dropping the ball, you may not even remember what play you were running in the first place.
For those of you who fall into the “can’t stop won’t stop stressing” and “my baby’s my alarm clock” categories. I get it, and you’re not alone. Chronic stress is a major contributor to the sleep issues of an estimated 1/3 of Americans and unfortunately, it’s a double edged sword. When we’re not sleeping sufficiently, our bodies respond like they would to any stressor - by increasing pro-inflammatory pathways. This persistent increase in inflammation disrupts our cortisol patterns (a stress hormone with a natural ebb and flow), impairs immune function and has been linked to elevated blood pressure. Simply put, the less you sleep, the more stress you induce in your body. I won’t pretend there’s a quick fix that will solve all of your sleeping woes but everyone has some opportunities for improving their sleep regimen.
First and foremost, MAKE the time. You will never just have the time, every one of us could fill a 30 hour day without even blinking. Sleep has to be something that you prioritize and don’t compromise. If you’ve forgotten why sleep needs to be a priority (because you’re exhausted) please scroll up and start from the beginning. We are no good to anyone else if we don’t respect our own health first. There’s a reason every flight you’ve ever boarded tells you to secure your oxygen mask before assisting others.
Not only do you want to have enough time, you want to have consistent timing. Following a consistent sleep/wake pattern will teach your body to adopt a sleep cycle that will make getting to sleep easier. Do your best to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This means weekends too - if you’re getting consistently adequate sleep every night, this won’t feel like punishment.
Another way of coaxing your body to sleep is by keeping the bedroom cool. Your body naturally lowers its core temperature by as much as 2 degrees every night and keeping the thermostat at 68 degrees fahrenheit appears to be the sweet spot for both falling and staying asleep throughout the night.
A less popular but highly effective strategy is to limit your caffeine to mornings only. For the majority of people, caffeine has a half life of 6 hours in our bodies. Meaning, that cup of coffee you had at 3:00pm to combat your midday slump will only be 50% metabolized by 9:00pm that night and likely still working its way through your system until 3:00am. Aim to finish your last cup of coffee at least 12 hours before bed and you may be surprised by the results.
And since we’re on unpopular topics, let’s talk about alcohol. While stressful days lend themselves to seeking ways to decompress at night, alcohol will likely do you more harm than good. Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it definitely has calming effects that make it seem like a great sleep aid. However, the effort your liver has to go through to metabolize alcohol has been shown to upset your sleep cycle each night, leading to groggier mornings. I’m not suggesting you wave goodbye to nightcaps, I’m not a monster. But do your best to keep it to one and make it a couple hours before you plan to head to bed. It takes about 60-90 minutes for alcohol to reach it’s peak in your bloodstream and only then does your body start the process of removing it. The longer you give your body to work while you’re awake, the sounder you’ll sleep.
Another particularly effective way to unwind is by designating some unplugged down time. Say goodnight to your electronics an hour before bed and pick up a book. Or, if you have trouble detaching from your devices, invest in some decent blue light blocking glasses and put them on as soon as the sun starts to go down. Before technology made it possible to replicate light, our bodies operated on a natural cycle according to the sun which you’ve likely heard of - our circadian rhythm. The closer we can mimic this cycle, the better. The more light we’re exposed to as we near bedtime, the greater the disruption to our circadian rhythm and the harder it is for our brain to prepare itself for sleep.
An interesting tidbit from the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that poor sleep has been shown to increase your appetite, often selectively in favor of simple sugars and carbohydrates. (Ever wonder why bagels and muffins are so comforting first thing in the morning?) With this in mind, consider adopting one more habit with multiple benefits: Stop eating 3 hours before bed. This ensures your last meal will be fully digested before lying down and will allow your body to focus on recovering without having to multitask.
Eating late proves to be equally as disruptive to our circadian rhythm as light. Every time we eat, we signal our metabolism to start burning - biologically we view calories for exactly what they are, a source of energy. If we’re eating close to bedtime, we’re sending our bodies very mixed signals. And, as an added perk, increasing the length of time between your last and first meals allows your body the time to properly utilize its stored resources instead of collecting more reserves. In other words, it could help you keep extra pounds at bay. But that’s a topic for another day - check out my blog on intermittent fasting if you’re interested in a deep dive on meal timing.
I know, that was a lot. Every day is a juggling act and we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. But if we’re being 100% honest with ourselves, I bet we all have room to improve when it comes to self care. If you only pick one thing you can do this week to improve your sleep habits, you’ll be off to a great start. And if you just don’t think you have it in you to make any changes, it’s time to ask yourself one thing: What did you do today that’s more important than a healthy brain?