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Sleep loss hijacks the brain's activity

Each year 1.5 billion people throughout the world take part in an incredible experiment. However, the results of this mass experiment are less than encouraging, leading as they do, to an increase of around a quarter in road traffic accidents, heart attacks and even suicides. Yet despite the resultant carnage, the experiment is repeated year-upon-year and has been going on for decades.

“What?”, you may well be thinking, “is the reason for this crazy experiment which results in such human carnage? And why do we repeat it lemming-like year after year?”

The answer lies in daylight saving. Each year at the spring equinox, for much of the globe, the clocks go forward and we lose an hour’s sleep. Six months later, at the onset of autumn, the experiment is repeated, an additional hour of sleep is gained and the carnage reverses itself (well almost).

Nothing that I have read better illustrates the importance of sleep, and the tragic consequences of sleep deprivation than this, the simplest of examples.

Now, from an evolutionary perspective sleep should be a very bad thing! When we sleep we are simultaneously at our most vulnerable and least productive. We can’t hunt, eat, defend ourselves or reproduce! So it is astonishing that despite being honed by 2 million years of evolution, homo-sapiens haven’t overcome our need for sleep. Moreover, it turns out that not only do our brains have a built-in sleep rhythm, but so too do individual cells and even the organelles – individual parts within the cell. And its not just human beings that sleep- it seems that pretty much all of nature, from the simplest to the most complex of organisms sleep too.

I used to think that sleep was just a waste of time and wanted to emulate Margaret Thatcher - not in the political sense you understand - but in that she, too, thought sleep a waste of time and was famous for only needing 3-hours of it. Maybe like me, you were shocked to see in a recent TV documentary how Mrs Thatcher entered a tragic slide into dementia, which ultimately killed her.

It turns out that far from being some form of passive unconsciousness, sleep is actually very active. A good and consistent 8-hours of sleep, with good sleep architecture (our sleep is actually extremely structured) is critical. In fact we human beings die more quickly from total sleep deprivation than almost anything (including starvation) with the sole exception being dehydration. During sleep our brains literally “detox”; our memories are stored and knowledge gained throughout the day is consolidated and organised. Our emotions are regularised and reconsidered. Thus the entreaty to “sleep on it” turns out to be exceptionally wise. Besides increased dementia risk, poor sleep increases our risk of hypertension, type2 diabetes, cancer, poor mental health even catching the ‘flu and much else besides.

Effects of lack of sleep in adults and children

While we sleep, our brains form new pathways to help us learn and remember, which allow us to solve problems, make decisions, and to be creative. Plus, there is increasing awareness of the critical role of the microbiota: the 2-3kg of bugs who live symbiotically in the oxygen-deprived darkness of our gut. You may be surprised to learn that 95% of the “happy hormone” serotonin is found in the gut (not the brain) and is manufactured for us by the microbiome.

If our children are getting less than 8 hours they are more likely to have anger and impulse control issues and can have difficulty getting along with others due to them not getting enough of those ‘happy hormones’ from their gut. If you are in a learning environment, which most children and adolescents are, research shows that you need two consecutive good nights of sleep to consolidate the things you have learnt during the day. Even when information is learned initially, further good sleep is needed, as learned information is ‘filed’ into long-term memory during REM (dream) sleep.

Then we move onto adults that are in the working world. So-called “Presenteeism”, the heroic approach to getting on in a career (first to arrive, last to leave) not only plays havoc with employees’ mental as well as physical health, it also negatively affects decision making, use of company resources and even results in an increased tendency towards dishonesty. Exhausted employees are simply less productive overall, while exhausted leaders make poor decisions, are less charismatic, less empathic and generally produce far less benefits for the organisations they work for compared with their well-rested competitors. All of us working in commercial environments are seeking a competitive edge, yet a well-slept workforce is a priority for almost no one.

If any of this applies to you, here are the Tips for Healthy Sleep by the American National Institute for Health:

  • Follow a regular sleep schedule. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends or when you are traveling.
  • Get bright, natural sunlight during the first half of the day for at least 30 minutes. This helps set the body clock’s natural hormone melatonin for daytime wakefulness and night time sleep
  • Avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening, if you can. Naps may keep you awake at night.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. Take time to relax before bedtime each night. Some people read a book, listen to soothing music, or soak in a warm bath.
  • Try not to watch television or use your computer, cell phone, or tablet in the bedroom. The light from these devices may make it difficult for you to fall asleep. And alarming or unsettling shows or movies, like horror movies, may keep you awake.
  • Take a hot bath before bed. The body actually cools during sleep. Perversely a hot bath can help because it dilates the blood vessels dissipating heat. Hot baths also make you drowsy
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature, not too hot or too cold, and as quiet as possible.
  • Use low lighting in the evenings and as you prepare for bed.
  • Exercise at regular times each day but not within 3 hours of your bedtime.
  • Avoid eating large meals close to bedtime—they can keep you awake.
  • Stay away from caffeine late in the day. Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate) can keep you awake.
  • Remember—alcohol won’t help you sleep. Even small amounts make it harder to stay asleep.
  • Some medicines, including OTC medicines such as decongestants and even herbals can affect sleep and sleep quality. Ask your pharmacist for advice if you think that might be the case. It might be OK to take the medication at a different time of day or there may be alternatives
  • Don’t lie in bed awake. If you are struggling to get to sleep for 30 minutes or becoming anxious about it then get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy

For all these reasons and many more, sleep is a big deal for our ProLongevity clients. We have a number of free resources such as our “lark or owl” assessment here: www.prolongevity.co.uk/downloadable-form

If all of this leaves you feeling a bit sleep deprived do contact us for a free, no obligation chat, about whether we can help.