WRITTEN BY STEFF BRAND, M.S., NCC, LPC-INTERN
Where does this one fall on your priority list? We can likely all agree that we are much more efficient, tolerant, and happy when we have had sufficient rest, but “a good night’s sleep” remains a subjective idea. How much sleep is enough? What are the risks? You feel okay, so why make any changes to your sleep schedule?
“I can function fine on just six hours”
People that struggle with conflict management and healthy communication as adults often started as kids that grew up in a conflict rich environment. Their norm was chaos and when they did not experience frequent fighting, they felt happy. The same idea is true for people that have normalized a six-hour sleep opportunity. It is all they know. So as long as they do not identify immediate symptoms of sleep deprivation, they are happy with their schedule. Well, as long as no one talks to them until after the barista has handed them their large drip coffee with almond milk and two sugars.
Full disclosure: I have pulled many all-nighters in my life. I am human. At one point, getting an A on a test meant more to me than the irritable way I talked to my partner. It meant more than crying in front of my co-workers at the slightest threat of stress. It meant more than being alert while I was driving on the road and more than the safety of others. It meant more than my physical health and it helped justify my unhealthy eating habits. It even meant more than my mental health. I was able to fight through the exhaustion and was willing to risk the short term and potentially long-term effects of inadequate rest. That’s right. I study mental health for a living and am guilty of abusing my body by accepting little to no sleep at times.
But nothing really bad ever happened. It was undergrad and everyone was doing it. It was the norm on campus, so it felt okay. Right?
One year when I was studying for a certification exam, someone gave me a t-shirt that said, “drink some coffee and handle it.” I loved it. It empowered me to think I could suppress any tired or defeated symptoms I was experiencing by just getting some caffeine and fighting through it. Rest is often perceived as a weakness in today’s overly productive environment, but it is a biological necessity and can be our biggest strength if taken seriously. Here are some risks and benefits from neuroscientist and sleep expert, Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. I highly recommend the read; it helped me change my relationship with bedtime and inspired me to “get some sleep and handle it” instead.
Sleeping less than six or seven hours a night on a regular basis can destroy your immune system and more than double your risk of developing cancer.
The countries where sleep time has recently declined the most, such as the US, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and several parts of western Europe, are also those suffering the greatest increase in physical diseases and mental disorders.
Insufficient sleep is a major contributing factor in determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and other major psychiatric conditions.
Moderate reductions of sleep for just one week can profoundly disrupt blood sugar levels.
Under sleeping can increase the chance of coronary artery blockage which can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.
Not enough sleep augments the hormone that makes you feel hungry and suppresses the hormone that makes you feel full, a recipe for easy weight gain.
Important for athletes, an under slept body can prolong muscle recovery, impair your ability to breathe, and even reduce sweating, your body’s way of cooling itself down. A chronic lack of sleep also increases the chance of injury.
Obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep a night and aerobic output is significantly reduced and physical exhaustion increases by ten to thirty percent.
Drowsy driving is the cause of thousands of traffic accidents and fatalities each year. One person dies in a traffic accident every hour in the U.S. due to a fatigue related error and there are more vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving than alcohol and drugs combined.
Each stage of the sleep cycle serves its own purpose in development and missing any steps throughout the process of light NREM, deep NREM, and REM sleep will cause brain impairment.
There does not appear to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that is not optimally improved by sleep.
Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions including your ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. Sleep is vital for keeping information in your brain for short and long-term use.
Sleep recalibrates your emotional brain circuits allowing you to rationally handle next day social situations and psychological struggles.
Sleeping promotes creativity and allows us to keep some memories and discard others.
Proper sleep allows your immune system to prosper and helps your body prevent infection, battle malignancy, and zone off sickness.
Your metabolism can be managed by balancing insulin and circulating glucose through sleep. This regulates your appetite which makes you less likely to crave sugar and more likely to make a healthy diet choice.
Carve out a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity and stick to it.
Write down where sleep falls on your list of priorities and look for evidence of how you are demonstrating its ranking in your life. Make others aware of its position on your list so they are not surprised or confused when you turn down plans or say “no” to watching one more episode of your Netflix series with them. Re-visit your list the next time you find yourself compromising sleep for other commitments and evaluate why you are willing to make an exception.
LED screens emit blue light, trick your body into thinking it is still day time, and reduce the production of the hormone melatonin. Avoid screen time at least an hour before trying to sleep. The Instagram post will still be there for you in the morning. Try reading a book or taking a bath instead.
You can also promote the production of melatonin by making your sleep space dark. Dim down the lights in your whole home as you approach bedtime.
Keep your home cool at night. Your brain and body need to drop their core temperature by about two- or three-degrees Fahrenheit to initiate quality sleep.
Avoid beer and wine. Alcohol is a sedative that steals your ability to fall into natural sleep. This is less known because alcohol has the ability to knock you out and trick you into thinking it is helping. In reality, it will fragment your sleep and often make you wake up several times throughout the night.
Skip the dessert espresso. Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant that prevents the ability to signal sleepiness to your brain. Even if you can fall asleep right after drinking caffeine, you will deprive yourself from the deep, quality sleep that your body needs to thrive.
Life happens; but try your best to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Maintaining regularity on the weekends matters too.
If you still feel like you are happy getting less than the recommended amount of sleep, I challenge you to try sleeping eight hours a night for just one week. Keep a sleep journal of how the change impacts your ability to workout, concentrate, retain information, socialize, and de-escalate stressful situations. Check-in with yourself and ask for observations from others.
If you agree that you are not getting enough sleep, but feel stuck on how to do it, schedule an appointment with us. You are not alone. Maybe you are a new parent, even a single parent, and feel like you do not have a choice but to wake up every couple of hours. Maybe you have already developed a sleep disorder or are going through an adjustment chapter in your life and need help navigating your way back to a healthy lifestyle. Or maybe you are getting enough sleep now but feel that sleep choices you made in the past are causing you to feel anxious, depressed, or just stuck. Come visit so we can process the strengths and resources you DO have and help you live up to your fullest potential.
Walker, M. (2017). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Simon and Schuster.