Are you getting enough sleep?
When you start studying sleep, the first thing you learn is that the experts don’t seem to know too much. Not as much as you’d think anyway. There is one thing they do seem to agree on: most of us are chronically sleep deprived. And chronic sleep deprivation can destroy your health.
Generally speaking, most of us need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. A few need less, and a few need more. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that you in particular need 8 hours of sleep each night. What happens if you don’t get it?
This is where the concept of sleep debt comes in. Every night that you get less sleep than you need, you go into what’s called “sleep debt.” You know how years of credit card debt can kill your finances? Well, sleep debt can pile up and really drain your body.
We’ll come back to sleep debt in a second. But before we do, what exactly makes sleep so important?
The experts don’t know much.
I don’t really know. Neither do the experts. As always, theories abound. Some of them make more sense than others. The best one in my opinion goes a little something like this:
When you sleep, your body can divert the energy that it’s usually spending on consciousness to other functions. These functions include (among other things) tissue repair, hormonal balancing, neurotransmitter production, and immune function. Immune function is the one that I’m most concerned with.
I touched briefly on this in the article “My Skirmish with Cancer” Here’s a quote:
“… a lot of people get cancer. While the experts still don’t agree why that is, there is much they do agree on. The prevailing theory these days is that all of us are constantly fighting malignant changes to cells in our bodies. Usually, your immune system can keep up and kill off cells that are turning bad.
You should minimize exposure to carcinogens, eat quality foods, work to reduce stress, and get sleep. I’ll have much more to say about this in the future. Once you get a cancer, you have to be checked for the rest of your life to see if it’s coming back. I plan to make sure it does not…”
So really, you’re only as healthy as your immune system. While you sleep, your body fights off invaders, replaces immune cells that are spent, and generally undoes the damage that you exposed yourself to during the day.
When you’re around the sloppy sneezer at the grocery store, some of that person’s cold virus flew through the air, went up your nose and ended up in somewhere in your upper respiratory tract. The rest of that day, your body started to ready its defenses. Later that night, while you sleep, the immune system brought out the big guns.
If you get a good night sleep, and you should be fine. Your immune system has the chance to devote the proper resources to finding and destroying the viruses as they start to copy themselves. You’ll wake up the next day with no idea anything even happened.
But if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, the virus may get the upper hand. It starts making copes of itself faster than your immune system can kill those copies off. You probably won’t notice it the next day, but the day after that, you have a headache. Maybe you feel a little tired and indifferent. You head home that night, and it hits. The sneezing, the aches, the fever. What do you want to do? Nothing but go to sleep.
Sleeping your way to athletic greatness?
Tissue repair seems to be another important sleep function. This is particularly relevant to the athletic types, or those of you with chronic injuries.
Let’s say you’re someone who goes to the gym. After a hard workout, your muscles are beat up. There may be micro-tearing in the fibers, their local pH may be off, etc.
If you get a good night’s sleep, your repair cells can do their jobs. It may take a couple of nights until the soreness goes away, but then you’re ready for more.
If you don’t get that rest, you move closer to over-training You may actually get weaker. You’ll feel fatigued, and the nagging injuries start to pile up. If it goes on long enough, you may weaken your immune system, setting the stage for further problems.
“Make two hormones and call me in the morning… “
And what about those hormones? I can’t get too deeply into this aspect of sleep because it’s extremely complex. There are many hormones that play a part in regulating sleep, and are also regulated by sleeping (see, it’s complex). These hormones include: histamine, GABA, glutamate, acetyl choline, orexin, noradrenalin, prolactin, serotonin, and melatonin, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, thyroid hormones, cortisol, etc.
Let’s talk about melatonin for a second, since you’ve heard about this one in the media. Again, I’m making a long story short here. When you start to fall asleep, serotonin in your brain is converted into melatonin.
Some people like to take melatonin to fall asleep. This might be a bad idea. Melatonin is involved in a hormonal “chain” that controls your sex hormones – testosterone and estrogen. So, it’s entirely possible that by taking melatonin to help you sleep, you are messing with your natural hormonal balance. Since melatonin is sold a supplement in the US, it never had to be tested the way that prescription drugs are, therefore, no one has any idea if there are negative consequences to artificially elevating your melatonin levels.
I can tell you this, altering hormonal balance by taking pills almost always has a downside. Just look at steroids (testosterone) and estrogen replacement therapy. You may want to think twice about taking melatonin to help you sleep unless a professional is supervising you.
Back to sleep debt.
So, back to sleep debt. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body falls behind on its immune functions, its tissue repairs, its neurotransmitter production, its hormonal balancing acts, and so on. And all this falling behind adds up.
Once again, for the sake of simplicity, lets assume you need 8 hours a night. On a particular Monday, you stay up until about midnight and set the alarm for 6 AM. You got 6 hours, but you just incurred a two hour sleep debt. Tuesday night, you fall asleep at 10, and wake up at 6 again. No added sleep debt, but you still haven’t paid back those two hours you missed on Monday.
Wednesday night, you have a bottle of wine and the toss and turn until about 1 AM. Up at 6 the next morning, you just added three more hours to your sleep debt.
You immune system is falling behind. Your tissue repair is falling behind. You start to feel rundown during the day, so you’re downing a lot of Starbucks. And it’s only Wednesday.
Sleep debt seems to accumulate over a two week period, as far as the experts know. No one’s really studied long-term sleep debt, so they aren’t really sure what the implications are. At some point it must level off, or we’d all die of sleep deprivation. There almost certainly are long-term consequences to chronically short changing your immune system and repair systems. Hormonal imbalances are rampant and prevalent, and are directly related to lack of sleep.
So, what are you planning to do about it?
Your best strategy is to figure out if you need seven, eight, or nine hours of sleep each night. I used to think I was a six-hour-a-night guy, but then a little malignant fibromyxoid sarcoma managed to get past my immune system, so now I shoot for seven. I admit that I don’t always get it.
The best way to estimate your sleep needs is to try to get 8 hours a night for a week. For most of us, that means getting to bed earlier. Then, you evaluate your daytime sleepiness, which is a good indicator of night time sleep deprivation.
If you get 8 hours a night and still feel sleepy, you might need nine hours a night, or you may be paying off sleep debt. Try a week of nine hours a night, and see how you feel.
If you have a very hard time falling asleep after the first few nights, you probably had sleep debt, and paid it off.
Stanford researchers also came up with a way to measure sleep debt, called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test. Basically, you measure how long it takes you to fall asleep, and use that information to estimate your level of sleep debt. Frankly, I’m not sure how accurate that concept is.
Here’s the real point I’m driving home: Once you determine your sleep needs, you must come up with a sleep strategy to make sure you get close to the your nightly quota. This may mean addressing sleep disorders.
Simple insomnia is probably the most common sleep disorder. We probably all suffer bouts of insomnia from time to time. There are simple ways that you can start to fight insomnia. It all starts around dinner time.
You’d be surprised how important light is to your health. In the olden days, before Edison invented the light bulb, we mostly dealt with sunlight and candle light. Sunlight is bright, candles are dim. Complex interactions between your eyes and your brain turn daily variations in light levels into daily rhythms, or circadian rhythms. Bright light hitting the eyes tells your brain it’s time to be awake.
Nowadays, we bombard ourselves with bright lights all day long. If you have trouble sleeping, this is the first thing to change.
As night sets in, don’t blast all the lights in the house. Keep the levels moderate, and reduce them as you get closer to bed time. Install dimmers. They work.
Another source of very bright light and loud noises is the television. Ideally, you should never even turn the stupid thing on. We’ll come back to that in a second.
Television is designed to stimulate you. The bright lights and loud noises actually subtly hypnotize your brain into staring dumbly at the screen by activating pleasure centers in your brain (the Limbic System). On top of that, the content of most of the crap that they put on TV is intended to cause a low-level “Fight-or Flight” response in your body.
Don’t let the bottom-feeders ruin your health.
The worst offenders are the producers of local news. You see the promos. It’s always something horrible like a kid getting attacked by a pit bull, or bird flu coming to kill us, or skyrocketing gas prices devouring your paycheck. Bottom-feeding local news shows are loaded with doom-and-gloom content intended to arouse your fears and curiosity. This may be interfering with your sleep.
The best bet is to turn the TV off at 9 PM, or avoid it all together. If you absolutely love those 9PM dramas, get a DVR and watch them at a different time. Or, watch comedies if you must watch TV. This will reduce the stress response that TV can cause. If nothing else, at least stop watching the news after 6 PM.
Many nights of the week, we don’t bother turning the TV on in my house. It’s amazing how peaceful things seem when it’s not on. Try it.
Next take a look at your sleep environment. Is the bed comfortable? Is it too warm or too cold? Does too much light get into the room? Are there noises that keep you up? If these kinds of issues are affecting your sleep, making changes can dramatically affect the quality of your sleep, and dramatically improve your health.
Snoring is a serious medical condition.
Snoring can be a serious problem, as it can cause sleep apnea. This is something that a medical specialist should evaluate. Sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing during sleep. It’s surprisingly common, and literally can kill you. That’s what killed former NFL player Reggie White. Some people wake up hundreds of times a night because of sleep apnea. If you snore, or someone you knows snores, talk to a doctor about it. A snoring bed-partner can also seriously disrupt your sleep, so it should really be addressed.
Be very careful with both over-the-counter and prescription sleep drugs. These are powerful chemicals that affect your brain, often with side effects. You should always discuss these drugs with your doctor. If you take Tylenol PM every night to go to sleep, something’s wrong.
Caffeine is another drug. If you consume too much caffeine, or consume it too late (after 11 AM) it may affect your sleep. If you’re a coffee-pounding, perpetually sleepy insomniac, try cutting back to a couple of cups in the morning at the most.
Well, that’s about all I want to say about sleep for now. Here are some books I’ve read and would suggest:
The Promise of Sleep, by William Dement
Lights Out, by T.S. Wiley
Rhythms of Life : The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing, by Russell Foster
Remember, quality sleep can do wonders for your health. If you want to really make a big change in how you look, feel, and live, resolve to get more of it. If you want a more personal approach to improving your sleep, our Personal Programs take a good, long look at your sleep habits. You may also schedule a 45-minute initial consultation to discuss your situation. We’ll look for the underlying causes of your troubled sleep, and you’ll get several strategies to help you get the sleep you need to live stronger, leaner, and better.
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Do not use this information for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. Have any symptoms evaluated by a licensed doctor in your state.