Grandma said it, and Mom said it too. “Make sure you get your eight hours of sleep!” It’s something we all want and need, but it’s also the first thing we sacrifice in this 24/7 world we live in.
Everywhere you look you see commercials for pillows that “give you the best night sleep ever” and ads for medicine that will help you sleep like a baby with peaceful butterflies fluttering around your head. We are a starved-for-sleep society!
The field of sleep medicine is booming with research these days. There is abundant evidence of the effects of sleep deprivation on our physical and emotional well-being. Shortchanging our sleep cuts down on the amount of time that the body has to “reboot” with cell repair and for emotional “cleansing”. Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night (teens / young adults 8-10 hours; children 10+ hours). During sleep, our bodies should ideally go through 3-5 cycles of sleep. Each cycle includes Non-REM and REM sleep. During Non-REM stages our bodies are actively being physically repaired and undergoing mental relaxation. This is when growth hormone is secreted. Those sore muscles from all that yardwork, the papercut on your finger, the removal of the toxins from your body, and the head cold are all being dealt with during Non-REM stages of sleep. This makes up approximately 75% of our sleep.
The remaining 25% of our sleep is ideally devoted to REM sleep. During this stage our bodies undergo “emotional” repair and resolution. We actually problem solve while we are sleep. How cool is that?! In order to learn, we need to be well-rested and alert while we are introduced to new information. Then to retain the information, we need to get a good night’s sleep during which time the new information is committed to long-term memory in a process called consolidation. So, “sleeping on it” is a great idea and can make you super smart!
A really important aspect of our sleep cycles are the patterns of Non-REM and REM. When we sleep, we tend to have longer Non-REM stages at the beginning of our sleep and longer REM stages at the end of our sleep. You can tell if you are getting good REM cycles by whether or not you are dreaming, since this occurs during REM and towards the end of your sleep. If you aren’t dreaming, you may not be getting good REM sleep. This happens when we cut our sleep short because of time constraints (go to bed late, get up early) or when we have fragmented sleep because something is keeping us from sleeping soundly (noise, baby, snoring bed partner, illness, pain). In these cases, the reparative processes will be incomplete. That’s like driving around in a broken car that was only partly fixed. Over time we will see the side effects in the form of physical manifestations such as chronic pain, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and GERD; and psychological issues such as depression, ADHD and anxiety. Recent research also shows a strong link between altered sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. While we are sleeping, our bodies are actively removing brain waste from our brains via a cerebrospinal fluid flush. This brain waste is called beta amyloid. High levels of beta amyloid in the brain are linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Sleep deficiency leads to increased hunger, snacking and cravings which results in unwanted weight gain. To make matters worse, sleep deprivation also decreases our body’s desire for physical activity and our natural signal that our body is full, so we remain hungry. Altered sleep has been shown to degrade cognitive function and emotional response while increasing risk-taking behavior and substance abuse. That combination is pretty scary stuff! Just think of how it feels when sleep has been interrupted or short-changed. We feel foggy-headed, edgy, lethargic, and maybe even anti-social. We are more prone to making mistakes, injuring ourselves or others, and to being irritable when sleep deprived. Basically, it doesn’t make you feel like the spry, happy-go-lucky, youthful person that you’d like to be. You become downright hangry!
The good news is that it’s never too late to make a lifestyle change and improve on your quality of sleep by just heeding grandma’s advice. Making sure to always allow ourselves a proper, restful night sleep is a good first step towards that elusive “fountain of youth!”
Check out this great TEDx talk regarding this topic!
I hope you’ll check in next month as I cover some suggestions on how to improve your quality of sleep. Sweet dreams… and REM sleep!
By Dr. D’Aprile