LeBron prioritises it, neuroscientists worship it, yet society maligns it. New York rapper, Nas said it was the cousin of death… but research indicates it might just be the elixir of life. And sleep scientist Matthew Walker believes sleep is nature’s best effort yet at immortality, only underscoring its importance for everyone.
Sleep is the pillar of health most overlooked, and easily foregone. Late nights, long weeks, bleary-eyed mornings, red-eye flights, and benders all create a “sleep deficit” that must be reclaimed for your brain to function at full capacity. In a world where being busy has been mistaken for productivity and success, it’s easy to shunt sleep down the priority list. Ironically, if you want to be productive, successful, healthy, and high functioning – that’s the last thing you should do.
Those who want to lead a long and prosperous life would do well to elevate sleep onto the podium and laud it for the near-magical powers it bestows upon us each night. The NHS reports that sleep helps to boost immunity, prevent diabetes, and heart disease, while increasing sex drive and fertility. But before we delve into the details, there are a few things that help us understand how and why we sleep.
This is your daily wake/sleep cycle. Your rhythm is dictated by the release of melatonin and cortisol hormones in your body, which are in turn influenced by environmental factors such as light exposure and temperature. While it is possible to train your circadian rhythm through routine, your underlying chrono-type is a more permanent trait.
Knowing your chronotype can be transformative in rearranging or planning your schedule to get the most out of yourself. Importantly it can help you understand why you get up late. Rather than berating yourself for being “lazy,” you can reconcile your late awakening with the fact that you are a wolf and will seize the day a little later when your productivity peaks.
Chronotypes don’t influence your total sleep time. Everyone needs the same (around 7-9 hours for adults), but these specific groups tend to rip ZZZs at different times.
Dr Michael Breus created a popular online quiz that assigns you one of four different chronotypes:
- Lion: The early bird. If you wake up early and are most productive in the morning, but have trouble following a social schedule in the evenings, you’re a lion.
- Bear: The bear is said to make up about 55% of the population, who rise and fall with the sun. Bears do well with office hours and enjoy their social life in the evenings.
- Wolf: Similar to a night owl, the wolf is said to make up 15% of the population.
- Dolphin: The insomniac. Just as dolphins stay alert while sleeping, some humans seem to battle into the wee hours to catch that precious snooze time.
You can take the test right here.
The benefits of quality sleep
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is the holy grail of sleep. REM is the deep sleep state that allows you to dream. Fascinatingly enough, your muscles are paralysed by your brain during this state so you cannot act dreams out.
“Dreaming is your brain running defrag,” is a common analogy that scientists use to explain the benefit of REM sleep. The processes achieved during REM sleep seemingly cannot be attained at any other time and has prolific restorative benefits.
With the amygdala and cingulate cortex going into overdrive during REM (a 30% activity boost has been recorded), scientists believe strong emotional processing occurs during the dream state. It’s during this time that our brain filters memories from the day, filing what is important, letting go of certain niggles and annoyances, and discarding useless facts or occurrences that are unworthy of the brain’s storage space. A night of better sleep leads to a better memory imprint, and vice versa with poor sleep.
It appears that the brain then shuffles these memories into categories and places new ones in with older memories that have some connection or resemblance. Consequently, sleep is also considered to be an incredible problem-solver. This explains why we sometimes awaken to a prolific outburst of work or light-bulb moments, where the solutions to our problems just suddenly seem to click into place.
Enjoy them, but where possible, keep them short and sweet. Just 20 minutes is recommended for a good nap, and numerous people swear by the restorative properties that a quick snooze can have for their productivity and problem-solving. Edison, Newton, Da Vinci, and Einstein are all said to have used power naps to their advantage.
Armed with the above information, it’s safe to say that benders ain’t cool. The sleep deficit created by them is damaging to your brain for many reasons. Hence why meth-heads tend to look Keith-Richards-weathered in their 20s. Speaking of, trying to recover that sleep by zapping yourself with a xanny or benzo will not give you the type of sleep your mind and body is craving. These drugs will tranquillize you, but put you into a beta wave pattern of sleep, which can’t replenish your system like the good old delta waves found in REM sleep.
Caffeine doesn’t do many favours in the sleep department either. While coffee has a half-life of 5-6 hours, that means its quarter-life is 10-12 hours. So, if you have a mug at 11 AM, that’s akin to having a quarter of a cup of coffee at 9 PM. No coffee in the PM is a good rule of thumb.
Despite being one of society’s favourite sedatives, alcohol disrupts your sleep state and can often cause you to wake up several times throughout the night (without remembering), disrupting your REM windows.
Tips to crash out
And for those ever-suffering insomniacs searching for an answer: there is no magic pill. As discussed, pills will often mask, but not fix the problem. Melatonin is your best bet for a natural sleeping tablet, while physical exercise, meditation, routine, and abstinence from screens in the evening are all highly advised.
- A hot shower or bath can raise your body temperature, and as it cools once you get into bed your body should naturally produce melatonin.
- Avoid cardio in the evening as it raises your heart rate and alertness.
- Get plenty of sun throughout the day – Vitamin D helps regulate your sleep pattern.
- Eat a light dinner. Trying to digest a loaded belly won’t help you doze off.
In total, 25 to 30 years of your life will be spent sleeping. Around a third of the entire time that you’ll spend on this planet. As such, we’d recommend investing in a quality mattress, great pillows, and some comfortable sheets. Remove electronic devices that can hum and spill light pollution from your bedroom and design a space that helps you relax in peace and quiet. The more you do in your bed, the more your brain associates that space with wakefulness, so keep the bed for sleeping (mainly) and you should be primed for a solid bout of shut-eye.