The duration and quality of sleep is now considered by many to be the most important lifestyle behaviour that determines health and vitality. Sleep is a vital function. Getting enough quality sleep at the right time is protective for physical and mental health and impacts every aspect of living. A short sleep pattern will dramatically and quickly impair health and lifespan. Compared to 50 years ago children are getting 2 hours less sleep per night.
“Lack of sleep is like a broken water pipe in your home. It will leak down into every nook and cranny of your physiology…. humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves from sleep for no apparent reason. ” – Mathew Walker.
Sleep is a complex and comprehensive mind, brain and body process. During sleep, the brain and body undergo essential “housekeeping” activities. Neurotoxins that develop in the brain during waking hours are cleaned and removed during sleep. With a lack of sleep, there is a build-up of proteins that can block nervous system functions. With reduced sleep there is a shift in the autonomic nervous system towards a sustained sympathetic nervous system (SNS = fight and flight) response. In this situation there is a chronic increase in cortisol and adrenalin levels and a drop in growth hormone and testosterone levels. The flow on effects cause changes in insulin secretion and blood sugar regulation, heart health, mental health behaviours and even a reduction in willpower ( It is much harder to avoid junk food when you are tired). Men who are sleeping 5-6 hours per night have testosterone levels of a man who is a decade older. Women who sleep 5-6 hours per night will have about a 20% reduction in fertility and more erratic menstrual cycles. All these changes occur even after one night of reduced sleep and the effects are cumulative over days, weeks and decades.
In one way or another lack of quality sleep impacts all aspects of living. Yet we live in a culture that does not value sleep and some people will sacrifice sleep as if there were no consequences. As a world society we are all sleep deprived. Most individuals need 7- 9 hours to perform at their best and stay healthy. Fortunately, we are slowly waking up to this mistake. Perhaps it was no coincidence that two recent world political figures, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both proud of the fact and told the world community that they “only needed 4 hours of sleep”, both spent their last years lost in dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. We will look back on this disrespect for adequate sleep like we now do with smoking and wonder what we as a society were thinking
Often when an individual has a health issue more sleep is required. Yet a health issue can interferes with adequate sleep. Difficulty with sleeping can be a symptom of stress and or anxiety. On the other hand, the evidence is certain that reduced sleep hours and quality leads to stress and anxiety. Insufficient sleep defined as 6 hours or less has a profound effect on how the body uses energy. Energy balances takes into account what and how much we eat, how the body converts this to fuel and how it stores any excess intake. With poor sleep the energy systems becomes inefficient. The World Health Organisation has recently stated that poor sleep is a risk for cancer especially for bowel, prostate and breast.
There is a belief ( which is incorrect )that you can reduce sleep during the week and make it up by binge sleeping on the weekend. This is called social jetlag. This has potent adverse effects on health via the disruption of the circadian biological rhythms.
Humans began sleeping less with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, 250 years ago. In the span of evolutionary time, this is insignificant but it means as a species we have not adapted to the reduction is sleep hours. The most common cause of poor sleep in our society is stress which disrupts the normal flow of cortisol and melatonin. Stress leads to an imbalance in the autonomic nervous
system. There is not one mental health condition that is not associated with sleep disruption. This is a bidirectional process and insufficient sleep causes mental health issues. The most effective evidence-based method for balancing the stress response is meditation. Learning to meditate and implementing this into a daily habit is like compound interest for health. The benefits continue to accrue.
Chronic insomnia we now know cannot be solved with medications. Medications are sedatives and can sedate the brain into a state of unconscious so it feels like you fall asleep but the restorative aspect of sleep does not occur.
Getting enough sleep is not a luxury – it is something people need to function and live well.
Below are some articles that focus on how to get the sleep you need to increase both your healthspan and lifespan.