The Power of Sleep

About three weeks ago, on the 2.5 hour drive up to my family’s cottage in Bayfield, Ontario, my boyfriend asked if we could listen to a podcast on the drive. As I usually fall asleep almost instantly whenever we drive anywhere, I didn’t mind, so he proceeded to organize his usual long-drive set-up in the car: GPS, coffee, podcast. As a big listener of podcasts, he has introduced me to many of his favourites over the years; today we would be listening to Joe Rogan’s latest podcast all about sleep. This one he was extra-excited for – more so than usual – as he had already listened to it once before and wanted me to take a listen. In his words, “it is mind-blowing.” So, I gave it a listen. And I hate to admit this, but he was right.

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This particular episode featured Dr. Matthew Walker, Ph.D., notable sleep expert who is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, and Director of the schools’ Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab. He was a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and is the author of a new book: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. The podcast started off with Rogan asking Walker how he slept last night, which prompted the doctor to explain how when you sleep in a strange place, like a hotel room, for example, you never truly have a restful sleep as one half of the brain will never sleep as deeply than the other. Needless to say, the remaining 2+ hours were seriously educational.

This two-hour podcast inspired me to do further research into the importance of sleep on the body. I mean, we all know that when we get enough sleep, we feel good, and when we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t feel good. But what I have learned from Dr. Walker has truly opened my eyes to what is really happening to the body, and our brains, when we sleep, and probably most importantly, the detrimental effects on the body when we don’t sleep. I put together a quick synopsis to share with you, so you too can become educated on the power of sleep. (Then, feel free to take a nap. You have my approval.) 

The Power of Sleep

As we all know, sleep is pivotal for human health, well-being and longevity. Sleep is often considered as a powerful elixir of wellness and vitality. Insufficient sleep, on the contrary, has devastating consequences. A lack of sleep causes various illnesses, compromises health and safety, productivity and quality of life. Unfortunately, sleep loss has become a serious problem in society, which can result in a never-ending list of health concerns.

The recommended daily amount of sleep is between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. Seems like a lot, right? Well, the detrimental effects of not having the recommended amount of sleep every night may change your mind. Unfortunately for western society, who not only runs on minimal sleep, but also glamorizes it, insufficient sleep can result in a variety of diseases. Abnormally high blood sugar levels, cardiovascular strokes, depression and anxiety attacks are some common results of sleep deprivation. The extreme result of sleep deprivation may also be a shorter lifespan.

In a nutshell, every organ within the body requires sleep to ‘revitalize’; sleep works as a magic refreshing ‘vitamin’. So, next time you’re ready to purchase your plethora of beautifying lotions, potions and supplements, consider taking a good night’s sleep. It’s much cheaper, I can promise you that. 

Healthy Brain Function and Emotional Well-Being

Arguably one of the organs that benefits the most from a long, restful sleep is the brain. While asleep, the brain is preparing for what is in store the next day. It’s working overtime to form new pathways to help learn and retain new information. Studies show that a good night’s sleep vastly improves learning. Whether you’re learning a speech or presentation for work, a new sport or how to drive a manual vehicle, sleep significantly helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be more creative. (I’m sure all writers can agree that when suffering from a writer’s block, you are always more creative after a good night’s sleep!)

In the podcast, Walker explained an experiment where he observed the brain functions of rats who are learning a new route in a maze. He explained that when the rats were awake and actively learning, the brain was showing a consistent pattern of activity. But when the rats were asleep, their brains were showing that exact same pattern, but at 20 times the speed at which they were showing when awake. Basically showing that sleep will increase learning and memory of a new skill by 20 times. It really does pay to sleep!

In addition, studies have shown that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. Trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling emotions and coping with change are just some side effects of a lack of sleep.

Physical Health

As you can imagine, sleep also plays an integral role in physical health. Sleep is involved in the healing and repair of heart and blood vessels, supports healthy growth and development (which is especially important during children and teens), boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells. Sleep also maintains a healthy balance of the hormones that cause the body to feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When there is a lack of sleep, ghrelin levels increase and leptin decreases. This probably explains why after a poor night’s sleep, you may find yourself gravitating towards more high fat and high sugar foods. Sleep also affects how the body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels. Sleep deficiency results in higher than normal blood sugar levels, which may increase the risk for diabetes.

Furthermore, sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke, and also impacts the effectiveness of the immune system. If you find you are someone that is constantly sick or fighting something, consider looking at how much sleep you are getting on a daily basis.

Cognitive and Physical Performance

As we can probably all agree, a bad night’s sleep has a serious effect on productivity and performance the next day. Whether that be a lack of alertness during an important meeting at work, or feeling extra sluggish throughout a workout, a lack of sleep can have an immediate impact on day-to-day activities. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times helps the body function throughout the day. People who are sleep deprived are likely to be less productive, take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time and pay less attention to detail, resulting in an increase in mistakes.

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Now this is important to note, after several nights of losing sleep – even a loss of just 1-2 hours of sleep a night – your ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all for a day or two.

Lack of sleep may also lead to something called microsleep. Microsleep refers to brief moments of sleep that occur during wakefulness. The scary thing is, we cannot control microsleep, and we may not even be aware of it. Have you ever driven somewhere and realized that you don’t remember how you got to your destination? If so, you may have experienced microsleep.

Something even more scary is the impact that sleep deprivation has on driving. Studies show that sleep deficiency effects your driving ability as much as, if not more than, driving under the influence. It is estimated that a lack of sleep is a factor in about 100,000 car accidents each year, resulting in over 1500 deaths.

Another factor is the positive effect of a good night’s sleep on physical performance. Dr. Walker explained that performance is increased by a whopping 20-30% after a good night’s sleep. With most athletes doing everything they possibly can to move the needle 1 or 2%, it’s intriguing how much a good night’s sleep is overlooked in professional sports.

As an example, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has said to maintain a strict sleep schedule of between 8 and 11 hours of sleep a night, and when he doesn’t hit that amount, he makes sure to schedule-in a mid-day nap in the bed that was specifically bought in to the Texans’ changeroom during training camp. (J.J. Watt is serious about his sleep!) Watt’s trainer has said to notice “almost immediately” when he is out of his sleep routine, stating that “getting enough sleep impacts not only a player’s ability to recover from physical exertion, but also reaction time and capacity to learn new skills and assignments”, such as a new play or route.

While most of us are probably not at the level of J.J. Watt, there is no arguing the effects, positive and negative, that sleep has on the body. If you are someone that prides yourself on how early you go to bed and how long you can sleep for, then give yourself a pat on the back. You are doing great things for your body, so keep it up! On the other hand, if you are someone that gets 6 hours of sleep on a good day, then I highly encourage you to make sleep a higher priority, as I’m sure Dr. Walker would agree.

How much sleep do you get a night? Do you notice a difference in yourself when you have a good night’s sleep, versus when you don’t? Comment below and let us know!