WORLD SLEEP DAY – MARCH 17, 2023
Happy World Sleep Day! A national holiday to let us take a day off to nap.
Just kidding. That’s not really what the day is for. We will not judge you if you decide to go for a snooze after reading this blog (although, we hope reading this doesn’t bore you to sleep…)
#WorldSleepDay is really about a celebration of sleep, to bring awareness to the importance of sleep for your overall health.
Why is sleep such an important topic to discuss? Well, recent research from the American Psychological Association states that 2 in 3 Americans are not getting their desired sleep amount. Before the Covid pandemic, more than 50 million Americans suffered from some form of a sleep disorder–that number has only grown since then. More and more people are struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, leading to a strain on both physical and mental wellbeing.
Without further ado, let’s get into the importance of sleep and why it matters.
Importance of Sleep
You can’t talk about the importance of sleep without talking about Nathaniel Kleitman. Considered to be the father of sleep research, Kleitman (along with one of his students) discovered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in 1953—this discovery is considered the start of modern sleep research. REM sleep is a sleep phase unique to mammals where the eyes move at a rapid pace (hence the name) but no visual signals are being sent to the brain. Kleitman spent his entire career dedicated to studying sleep (and lived to be 104, so maybe that’s saying something about the importance of sleep).
Sleep research is continuing to evolve. Medically speaking, there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the sleep process. However, at the most basic level, we know that without sleep, mammals will die.
But what actually occurs after we’ve counted enough sheep and drifted off into dreamland?
Sleep is the time of day where your body works to support healthy brain function and physical health. It’s a time for rest and recovery, for your body to prepare to take on whatever the next day may bring. Your immune system refreshes itself during sleep to help prevent disease. It’s as important to human survival as food, water, and air.
Within the complex system that is the human body, sleep affects different areas in different ways.
The heart and circulatory system.
During sleep, there are different cardiovascular and respiratory parameters than while you’re awake. While asleep, your heart does not need to work as hard as it does during waking hours, leading to a drop in blood pressure and heart rate. (Fun fact: the lowest resting heart rate ever recorded was 27 beats per minute, belonging to a man named Martin Brady from the United Kingdom.) Your core temperature goes down, and breathing becomes slower.
Your brain continues to work while sleeping, processing all the daily information it received. Sleep helps to improve concentration, memory formation and consolidation, and alertness. In a recent discovery, researchers found that during sleep, the space between brain cells may increase, allowing the brain to flush out toxins related to neurodegeneration. (This could be especially important since we know the modern world is filled with a growing amount of toxins).
Your brain activity varies throughout the night as you drift through the different stages of sleep. The two phases of sleep are creatively named REM and non-REM. Electrical signals of the brain turn into wave-like patterns during sleep, and the different types of wave patterns are associated with the two different sleep phases. Your brain is more active during REM sleep, (which usually lasts around 10 minutes per cycle) and brain waves are almost the same as when you are awake. However, instead of analyzing real situations, your brain is subjected to dreams in this stage.
Your gut is lovingly known as “the second brain” due to the layer of neural tissue that lines the tube of our gut, and therefore needs sleep just as much as your brain does! Quality sleep and gut health go hand in hand–without one, you will struggle to maintain the other. Your gut is filled with trillions of good bacteria (known as the gut microbiome) that help to digest food and extract the energy and nutrients. But your biome can also affect other biological processes. Research out of Japan found that the gut microbiome impacts sleep by creating chemical messengers in the brain. The makeup of the bacteria can impact your sleep–the more diverse your biome makeup, the better your sleep quality will be.
If you want to learn more about gut health in the modern world, check out this blog.
The nervous system.
Our body is controlled through our autonomous nervous system that manages unconscious actions, including breathing, heart rate, and digestion. During sleep, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing the body to conserve energy and rest–specifically allowing the sympathetic nervous system to rest. This system is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, a response that controls adrenaline and cortisol. It’s important for this system to rest to help regulate those hormone levels.
Sleep as you age.
Throughout your life, proper sleep helps with healthy aging. During childhood and adolescence, sleep supports growth and development. Babies will spend nearly 50% of sleep in REM as their brain is rapidly developing. As children enter adolescence, teens experience dramatic hormonal changes (aka puberty) that leads to physical and emotional changes. It’s important to encourage healthy sleep during teenage years because the body is working extra hard to accommodate for these changes. As adults, sleep helps to maintain overall health and well-being. According to the CDC, adults should get anywhere between 7-9 hours depending on their age.
Technology’s Impact on Sleep
Our daily human experiences and exposures vastly differ from what others had experienced just 150 years ago. The “lightbulb” moment in 1879 brought electricity to the masses, meaning humans no longer had to rely on the sunlight or fire to be able to live their lives. Now, there could be light on-demand, forever changing our relationship with night and day.
Fast forward to 2023. Digital technology has become what the lightbulb of 1879 was: a sleep-altering invention for the ages. Technology directly impacts our sleep even after turning it off and setting it aside. It alters the body’s circadian rhythm: a 24-hour body clock which controls the sleep-wake cycle. When your body clock determines it’s time to sleep, the brain will secrete melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep. Melatonin signals to different organs that it’s time to shut down for the night.
How does technology impact our circadian rhythm? Both blue light and electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation coming from electronic devices have been found to disrupt melatonin secretion. Without proper and maintained levels of melatonin, your body will struggle to sustain a normal sleep routine. This cycle is naturally triggered by sunlight—however, the introduction of artificial blue light has thrown off circadian rhythms, leading to sleep problems and even insomnia. Light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye are particularly sensitive to blue light.
Another detrimental effect of technology on sleep is screen time. As screen time has skyrocketed in recent years, habits have changed. You still only have 24 hours in a day—so if you are spending (on average) 3.5 hours per day on a smartphone, what are you foregoing? Often, it’s either sleep or physical activity that can contribute to better sleep. The worst offense is mindless scrolling. Since the covid lockdowns, daily screen time has increased by a further 15%.
Along with screen time, technology has also made it hard to have a real disconnect at night. Modern society is now a 24-hour society, constantly in action. This is especially true when talking about the modern workplace. Work doesn’t always end now when we leave the office, since we can just continue working from our phone or laptop. In work-from-home settings, it’s even harder to disconnect from working, since your workspace is within your living space. According to the Pew Research Center, even as the covid pandemic ended, the majority of people with jobs that can be done remotely will continue to telecommute. While there are benefits to WFH, it’s blurring the work-life boundaries even more.
Once you do clock out from work or kids come home from school (where screens are now commonplace as well), using your phone/watching television/insert any activity with a screen can create too much stimulation for your brain to be able to shut down to sleep. Time before bed should be spent decompressing and relaxing, instead of the brain processing the light and other information emitted from screens. Among children and adolescents, research has found a significant association between using technology at bedtime and a higher body mass index.
Health issues caused by poor sleep
Striking the right balance when it comes to sleep is crucial.
One in three Americans do not get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to sensations like being intoxicated by alcohol—being awake for 17 hours is like having a BAV of 0.05% and being awake for 24 hours is like a BAC of 0.10% (FYI: the legal limit for driving is 0.08%, but there are no regulations about driving while sleep deprived). Sleeping too much–oversleeping–can also be an issue because this could be a sign of a sleep disorder, mental health disorder, or other health issue.
Research has determined not getting the recommended amount of sleep (either too much or too little) is a significant predictor of death. And it can also cause a slew of other health issues.
Poor sleep can negatively impact mental health, increasing the risk of anxiety and depression. Without sleep, your body may struggle to consolidate positive emotional content. It’s easier to fall into a cycle of poor sleep and mental health issues when you are struggling in one of those areas. A lack of sleep is also associated with lower brain activity, harming productivity, physical safety, weight management, decision-making ability, and long-term memory.
A deficiency in sleep can put a person at a higher risk for coronary heart disease. Without quality sleep, your heart does not get enough down time, leading to greater workload than the heart is capable of handling on a daily basis.
You are also at a higher risk for stroke if you aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep. When you sleep too little, your body is often in an inflammatory state, caused by the increased levels of cortisols which are released when the body is sleep-deprived. Inflammation can cause issues in the blood supply, leading to a stroke.
Insulin sensitivity decreases rapidly without enough sleep, resulting in an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
Remember that flight or fight response we mentioned earlier? Without sufficient rest, your body will be in a continued elevated, stressed state, leading to higher blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
Injuries and Recovery
In older adults, sleep deprivation can increase the risk of falls and injuries due to cognitive decline. What’s more, the saying “rest up” to help heal from an injury or sickness is true–your body can repair better during sleep than it can during wakefulness.
Without enough quality sleep, you are more likely to develop gastrointestinal diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease. And when you are sleep deprived, your body is stressed out, producing more cortisol which isn’t good for the gut. Lack of sleep contributes to decreased production of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that are important in maintaining a healthy appetite and consumption levels. When these hormones are in a state of flux, it can lead to…
Research has established a correlation between obesity and sleep deficiency for two reasons. First, sleep deficiency may alter hormones that control hunger, leading to an increased appetite, especially for foods high in fats and carbohydrates–think of those late night cravings like chips, processed food–which also puts a strain on your digestive system. Second, when you aren’t sleeping enough, there are more hours in the day to eat, increasing caloric intake while not necessarily increasing calories burned.
Not sleeping can, in fact, lead you to getting sick. Studies have found without enough good sleep, your immune response will suffer, leaving you more susceptible to illness. A deficiency in quality sleep means your body doesn’t produce enough cytokines, a type of protein the immune system releases during sleep that stimulates the immune system to do its job. Additionally, your body stops producing white blood cells, the body’s natural defenders.
Simply put, without enough quality sleep, your health will suffer (perhaps in more ways than one).
The Power Nap: Fact or Fiction?
The power nap. A distant dream for some (no pun intended), and a necessary annoyance for others. As a brief sleep to help refresh and regenerate yourself midday, naps can be an effective countermeasure to fatigue.
But do they work? According to science, they can (and some researchers claim a power nap may be more effective than caffeine…). NASA found that when their pilots napped for just 26 minutes, it helped improve their alertness and job performance by 54% and 34% respectively—and NASA sent people to the moon.
While it’s not typical in America to take a nap during the day, there are countries where taking a midday break is a common cultural practice. Spain and its “siestas” are probably the most famous for it, but there are countries around the world that have their own version of siestas, including Japan with “inemuri” and Italy’s “riposo.”
However, research into the length of a perfect power nap is split. Some say 10 minutes, others say 20-30. What’s key here, though, is that they all agree it shouldn’t surpass 30 minutes. Once you’re asleep for 30 minutes, you begin to enter deep sleep. Waking from deep sleep can leave you feeling more tired and groggy—completely defeating the purpose of a power nap.
An important caveat to power naps is while they help you with a burst of energy midday, they don’t contribute to your nightly sleep requirement, rather, they act as a supplement. They can’t replace a poor night’s sleep.
When you don’t sleep enough hours at night, you enter into a sleep debt. Unfortunately, taking longer naps in hopes to chip away at that debt doesn’t work. If you are going to nap–power nap or otherwise–reserve naps for earlier than 3pm because napping after then can interfere with your ability to sleep at night.
Longer naps are more beneficial for younger children who are still going through rapid growth and development. But power naps can help older children and adolescents who are dragging through the day–they’ll see similar effects from shorter naps as adults do.
So next time your boss asks what you can do to increase job performance and productivity, suggest a short midafternoon snooze.
Tips to create the perfect nighttime routine
Did you know that you’ll spend nearly one-third of your entire life asleep?! Make sure those hours count by having proper sleep hygiene to optimize your sleep. Below are some tips for a good night’s rest:
- Avoid screens for at least 30 mins before bed. Two hours would be best, but for some that may be unrealistic. Decreasing blue light exposure at night will help maintain a proper circadian rhythm and melatonin production. However, if you are going to use screens at night, make sure the devices are set to a “Night Shift” mode, which automatically makes the screen a warmer color, helping to combat the negative effects of blue light. Blue light glasses are also useful for blocking blue light wavelengths.
- Remove technology from the bedroom to create a sleep sanctuary. The bedroom is a vital place for relaxation, so it’s important to eliminate any sources of blue light or EMF radiation. Feng Shui principles actually advise to never have technology facing your bed or place of rest, so if it’s possible to remove your TV, work-from-home workstation, and phone, we definitely recommend it!
- Consider meditating or spending intentional time before bed to decompress from the craziness of modern life. This will help you disconnect from daily life and be able to shut down for some R&R at night.
- Sleep in a cool, dark area. If your room tends to be a bit brighter, an eye mask can help create darkness. The ideal temperature to sleep in is between 60-70o F (15-19o C). This will help with temperature regulation, as the body expects a dip in core temperature during sleepy time.
- Get the right type of pillow. Whether you are a side, back, or stomach sleeper, it’s important to have a pillow that is going to support your head and neck in the appropriate way, and make sure your spine stays aligned.
- Time your sleep around 90-minute cycles. Waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle during REM sleep can make you feel tired and groggy.
- Aim to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day. Create a routine that allows you to go to bed at a consistent time each night and wake up around the same time each day. Try setting a daily morning alarm that goes off every day instead of setting an alarm the night before. By creating a consistent bed and wake time, it helps to reinforce the circadian rhythm and keep it on track.
- Have a diet rich in Omega 3s. Recent studies have found that having adequate levels of both DHA and EPA can help improve sleep quality. If you aren’t consuming enough omega 3s in your diet, consider adding an omega 3 supplement into your routine.
- Make sure you have a healthy diet, rich with antioxidants, leafy greens, easily digestible grains, and healthy fats. These foods help keep your gut happy by reducing inflammation and supporting hormones that affect digestion. Another good idea is introducing a prebiotic and probiotic supplement to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, and in turn, keeping the brain-gut-axis functioning effectively and efficiently. As we know, a healthy and diverse gut microbiome has been linked to an increase in sleep efficiency.
And remember, sleep is essential for health!