When I coach, I find many clients reaching the conclusion that they need to eat better and exercise more. Rarely do I hear them come up with the third – equally important – pillar of wellness: sleeping more!
There’s wisdom and science behind the expression “Let me sleep on it.” Huge decisions need logic and presence, yes. But they also need the wisdom of unfiltered, long-term memory and the absence of strong emotions. Solid sleep takes us into a state where we access wise solutions from calm perspectives.
Even if you’re ticking all the other health boxes, if your brain isn’t functioning optimally, then stress and other mental health challenges, start happening. If we aren’t sleeping – and sleeping sufficiently and well – our brains aren’t functioning optimally.
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A sluggish brain can be compared to when you learn to drive a car, or a bike. When you are conscious of every move – your hand on the steering wheel, the cars around you, your foot on the pedal, the drive is jerky and unpredictable.
Life should not be like that – it should flow.
Like an expert driver or cyclist, when the vehicle gets going, your movements should be integrated and they should flow. This strengthens your resilience to take on the tougher challenges in your life and career.
Sleep isn’t for sissies. There’s nothing tough about being tired. In fact, the US army has introduced Sleep as one of its 3 pillars to optimum health and wellness (with food and exercise being the other two).
You’ve heard (and maybe used) the expression “…there will be sleeping enough in the grave…”
All very well – but consider that it comes from Benjamin Franklin, who went to his final sleep in 1790.
Perhaps it’s time to update your thinking?
THE LIBRARY AND THE LIBRARIAN
So back to sleep – I recently watched a number of talks by a Cape Town-based Neurosurgeon Dr Pierre van der Merwe. Dr Pierre (as he’s fondly known by the locals) talks a lot about sleep and my entire view on sleep has shifted as a result of this – which is why I must share it with you! This is my Layman’s version – but it captures the essence.
Like a good librarian (or think Google search history if that idea is too old-fashioned for you), Sleep facilitates the storage of knowledge and content. Sleep, (the librarian) sifts through the information absorbed during the day and filters what’s important to store and then puts it on the “right shelf” i.e. long or short term memory. In order to do this, sleep also filters out the stuff that we must let go of. Like a library, there are constantly new books coming in – the librarian’s work is to ascertain what is relevant and important for this day and age and then move out that which is not.
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Imagine storing every single experience, piece of information or interaction you go through in a day – like the unconscious behaviours such as brushing our teeth, making a cup of coffee, tying our shoe laces? This would result in what I call the scatter-brain effect: endless chatter in our heads. You’ve heard the complaint – “my mind is just so busy!” Next time you hear yourself saying this – consider sleeping longer. And do so as consistently as possible. Obviously not everyone can (sorry health workers and single moms) – but if you DO have that privilege – don’t waste it.
Regardless of whether we’re asleep by 10pm or not, the ‘clearing’ process in our brains proceeds. If you’re not asleep when you should be, it’s like sending a bunch of kids into this library to sort the books –they’re doing the best they can by throwing out the books whose covers they don’t like. Yep, much of the important data you’d like to retain, gets randomly thrown out. It’s not the same as blocking memories: it’s literally having valuable information and experiences wiped out and never recalled.
Here’s more bad news if you are a chronic insomniac, or a remorseless socialite. Sleep is good for weight loss and tragically, has the counter effect if you do not get your 7,5 hours in – that being that you will (God forbid) put ON weight!
Now we’re not talking day sleep, we’re talking the 7,5 hours sleep you have at night. I recently discovered this first hand. I’ve been on an eating programme for a while now that does not allow any form of nibbling between meals – not snacks, no testers while serving or cleaning up – Nothing! After a while of being seriously challenged by this, I got into the rhythm of it. I felt great and the weight started moving. Then I had a few night’s bad sleep. I knew I could catch up on the sleep – so was not too perturbed by this – but noticed I simply could not get enough food in and was constantly looking for something to eat.
Hello Google – I typed – does lack of sleep make you eat more? Sure as heck, I found it does. In a nutshell. Sleep loss changes the timing and release of appetite-controlling hormones, Ghrelin and Leptin.
Ghrelin is the hormone responsible for informing our brains when we’re hungry. When we sleep Ghrelin should also be napping, but it’s not. When we’re tossing and turning, out partying or working the night shift, Ghrelin is released in greater quantities. Sounds about right hey? Most of us experience hunger in the early hours of the morning, whether it’s after a night on the town, an early morning flight or just the dreaded stress-induced insomnia.
Then there’s Leptin, the hormone we all want more of! Leptin tells our brain when we’ve had enough to eat. Sadly, during sleep deprivation, leptin is released in smaller amounts. I think you’re getting the picture now. But there’s more… sleep loss affects the brain in a way that does not walk you to the refrigerator to grab a salad or cucumber stick. No! it seeks out sugary and or high fat foods. Hmmm, this is making a lot of sense now. I always thought eating between 12 and 5 in the morning didn’t count as real food.
MOODS, DEPRESSION AND HYPERSENSITIVITY
The final part of this, and it’s not looking good for most of us – is that our amygdala, which is the emotional centre of our brain, becomes more sensitive when we’re tired and our prefrontal lobe which supports our rational thinking, becomes less active when we’re not sleeping well. This not only leads to further bad food behaviours but also becomes the key motivator for negative and unpredictable behaviours, like lashing out at someone for the slightest blip on the radar.
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Lack of sleep does not stop at bad moods; it can exacerbate depression. An important side note, though: if you suffer from depression or know of someone who is suffering from this debilitating disease, you’ll also know that people with depression sleep MORE than is normal. It’s a coping mechanism and out of the scope of this article.
When I refer to sleep, I am referring to healthy sleep that takes place at night, after dark.
It’s a complicated explanation best left to professionals, but here’s a simple version: consider two of the important parts of the brain:
The Amygdala controls your emotions and fear-related behaviours in response to stimuli.
The Pre-frontal cortex, amongst other things, controls your rational response to situations and your awareness of the long term consequences of your actions.
Sleep deprivation turns up the volume on the amygdala and turns down the volume on our pre-frontal cortex. In real terms, this means that you aren’t getting clear messages about what is real danger and what is imagined! Oops.
Dr Robert Stickgold (don’t you love his surname), Associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University, tells us that sleep deprivation can cause us to forget about half the positive information we have learnt. The most astonishing fact is that you DO recall all the negative information, like fear. In other words, when we’re sleep deprived – our brains simply recall the bad stuff
I need to emphasise this (go back and read it again), as I have both clients and friends who find themselves constantly anxious or generally feeling negative about the world around them. Their poor sleeping patterns exacerbate the negative information they’re receiving and these perfectly intelligent and healthy people stop considering positive alternatives.
Let’s not get hung up on the 7.5 hours’ sleep I’ve mentioned a few times in this article – in fact, let’s get more mathematical and complicated. We must concentrate on 90 minute cycles within these 7.5 hours. Why? Because the clearing process (the librarian’s work) occurs in 90 minute cycles and it makes sense not to interrupt a cycle. This is why you could feel exhausted when you wake after 8 hours but feel fresh after 7.5. We’ve all experienced that hyper alertness when our alarms go off at a certain time, then decide to chill and take it easy, only to wake up an hour later feeling like we’ve been hit by a bus. Now you know why. You interrupted the cycle.
That’s the short and quick version of the ‘cleaning’ process and why 7.5 hours is the optimal time to sleep. Our brains and bodies it seems benefits most with 5 – 6 cycles a night.
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If you’re intrigued by all the sleep and brain optimisation content, I highly recommend you get googling. You may find great articles like this one on neurotoxins that get cleaned out during the ‘wash’ and prevent us from getting Alzheimer’s. Or this one which includes podcast interviews with Sleep experts Dr Graham Diering and Dr Robert Stickgold which dives deeper into diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other surprising illnesses aggravated by sleep deprivation.
FAT, SICK, DEPRESSED AND STUPID
Professor Stickgold’s mom’s advice to him as a younger adult was, “If you don’t get enough sleep, you could end up fat, sick, depressed and stupid.”
Now is that not a great incentive to get enough sleep?
Don’t know how? I’ve written useful piece on Better Sleep here.