The Science of Sleeping Soundly

On the topic of sleep, I can generally divide people into two categories: those who fervently wish they could have more, and those who brag about how little they need.

While these are radically different attitudes, both groups share one fundamental reality: inadequate sleep to build and maintain optimal health.

We already know that poor sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors, as well as weak concentration, problem-solving, memory and stress management. We also don’t exercise well or recover properly from workouts. And we are not more productive at work, despite believing that all those extra hours at the office boost our performance.

science of sleeping

The Problem With Not Getting Enough Sleep

The science of insufficient sleep is pretty scary. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we sleep 20% less than we used to a century ago. Seventy million Americans have a diagnosed sleep disorder – and that’s just the people who actually went to the doctor to get diagnosed.

Why should we care? Lack of sleep is not going to kill us, right?

Wrong. It turns out that insufficient sleep – less than 6 hours per night – can cut our lives short. If you don’t sleep well:

  1. Your chance of developing heart disease increases by 45% and having a stroke by 15%. Your suppressed immune system also exposes you to colds and the flu and accelerates the growth of cancerous tumors.
  1. You are likely to gain weight. Adequate sleep regulates the appetite hormones Leptin and Ghrelin. You eat more when you’re tired (and tend to crave sugary and fatty foods) not only because good decision-making is impaired, but because your hormones are disregulated.
  1. Your brain can’t repair and regenerate. During sleep, the size of neurons is reduced by up to 60%. Why? Because extra space between your brain cells allows your glymphatic system to clean out the metabolic waste that accumulates. That’s right – you literally wash your brain of waste products and damage when you sleep well.

In short, good sleep is the foundation for living a healthy, high-performance life. Here are a few proven techniques that you can use to sleep soundly.

3 Proven Ways to Sleep Soundly

1. No screens before bed

Get rid of your screens, including your TV if you have one in the bedroom. This can be a huge lifestyle change, but having a light that flashes at you at 240 frames per second is a surefire way to keep you awake. It’s not good that 61% of people fall asleep with the TV on.

Avoiding light from screens allows your pineal gland to release the right amount of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) at the right time. Television, iPads, laptops and mobile phones all compromise your ability to fall asleep and then sleep deeply. So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips and pick up a good book instead.

2. Your bedroom needs to be really, really dark

Unfortunately, melatonin production drops as we age. This means that we need to stay away from light during the night, too. You should have thick blinds or curtains in your bedroom, keep all lights off (including in the bathroom), and even cover your alarm clock. If you would like to use a nightlight, find one that emits red light in the night and blue light in the morning. Red light stimulates melatonin production (think sunset) and blue light turns it off and wakes you up (natural daylight contains blue light).

3. Your bedroom should be cool

In the evening, increased melatonin levels cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, releasing body heat into the environment and cooling the body. This cooling promotes drowsiness and helps us fall asleep. At night, a temperature of 19 degrees C / 66 degrees F in your room should be cool enough to help you stay asleep.

The Takeaway

If we are well rested, we are less stressed, stronger and more effective in our exercise, sharper in our work and just plain more fun to be around. The catch is that the North American attitude toward sleep tends to be that it isn’t particularly important. As a result, we’re getting sick and not performing to our potential.

As you plan for a world-class life, the more you can commit to getting a great sleep, the healthier and better you’ll be.

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dr greg wellsDr. Greg Wells is an Assistant Professor in the Faculties of Kinesiology and Medicine at the University of Toronto and an Associate Scientist in Physiology and Experimental Medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. You can connect with him at www.drgregwells.com or on twitter @drgregwells.

Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões



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