“If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it. Sleep does all of those things.”
Casey Smith, Head Athletic Trainer, Dallas Mavericks
In the world of health sleep is the best example of foundation versus fads: People will happily spend hours researching supplements or worrying about micro adjustments to training plans whilst ignoring this massive performance enhancer already available to them.
Sleep is like food, water and air, a basic biological need that humans need to survive. BUT if you want to go beyond survival and excel then you need to work on optimising your sleep.
If you want to be strong, fast, and full of energy, get enough good quality sleep! Do that and the rest will fall into place much more easily.
If anyone ever asks me a question around improving health and fitness, sleep is the first thing I will talk about. I cannot overemphasise how important this is.
In 1972 a French scientist conducted a 6 month study to find out exactly how circadian rhythm (which controls our sleep-wake cycle) functions. This work, along with the experiments of a handful of other researchers, helped kickstart a scientific interest in sleep that has resulted in sleep performance centers at major universities like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.
Given that we spend almost 1/3 of our lives sleeping, it’s hard to believe the topic has only gained a large scientific following in recent years. But for some reason we seem to be unaware of just how much impact sleep, or lack of it, has on every area of our life.
In fact society reinforces that sleep loss equals a badge of courage; you don’t have to sleep so you can get the job done. Yet, all the science says this is complete rubbish. You might think that way, but your performance will suffer.
“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.”
Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker is a sleep scientist. To be specific, he is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute whose goal – possibly unachievable – is to understand everything about sleep’s impact on us, from birth to death, in sickness and in health.
It’s his conviction that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine. This situation, he believes, is only likely to change if the government gets involved.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
There is a big difference between the amount of sleep you can get by on and the amount you need to function optimally. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours per night. In today’s fast-paced society, six or seven hours of sleep may sound pretty good. In reality, though, it’s a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation.
Just because you’re able to operate on six or seven hours of sleep doesn’t mean you wouldn’t feel a lot better and get more done if you spent an extra hour or two in bed.
While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, most older people still need at least 7 hours of sleep. Since older adults often have trouble sleeping this long at night, daytime naps can help fill in the gap.
If you are not sure how much you need, trust your instincts.
If you would sleep on if your alarm clock was turned off you are simply not getting enough. And if you rely on caffeine to get through the afternoon, chances are you need more sleep.
However, it’s not just the number of hours you spend asleep that’s important – it’s also the quality of those hours. This is where you can maximise the hours that you are spending in bed. Even if you can’t get enough sleep due to personal circumstances, you can at least get the best quality possible.
What is The Cost Of Sleep Deprivation?
A 2 week experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington State University set out to answer this. They gathered 48 healthy participants and split them into 4 groups:
- No sleep for 3 days.
- 4 hours sleep per night.
- 6 hours per night.
- 8 hours per night.
Throughout the experiment the subjects were tested on their physical and mental performance.
The most notable result was the decline shown by those in groups 2 & 3. The four-hour group performed worst, but the six-hour group didn’t fare much better. In particular, there were two notable findings:
- Sleep debt is cumulative. It has a neurobiological cost which accumulates over time. After 2 weeks of 6 hours sleep per night their mental and physical performance declined to the same level as if they had stayed awake for 48 hours straight.
- Individuals do not notice their own performance decline. When participants graded themselves, they believed that their performance declined for a few days and then tapered off. In reality, they were continuing to get worse with each day. In other words, we are poor judges of our own performance decreases even as we are going through them. In the real world, well-lit office spaces, social conversations, caffeine, and a variety of other factors can make you feel fully awake even though your actual performance is sub-optimal. You might think that your performance is staying the same even on low amounts of sleep, but it’s not. And even if you are happy with your sleep-deprived performance levels, you’re not performing optimally.
“Unless you’re doing work that doesn’t require much thought, you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.”
Gregory Belenky, Director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University
How Sleep Works
We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and it’s only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
You need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isn’t enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit.
These sleep cycles and the quality of your sleep are negatively affected by the factors mentioned last week such as caffeine and alcohol. On the flip side, if you follow as many of the actions laid out in the summary your sleep quality should drastically improve.
During slow wave sleep the body relaxes, breathing becomes more regular, blood pressure falls, and the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, which makes it more difficult to wake up.
REM sleep is to the mind what slow wave sleep is to the body. The brain is relatively quiet during most sleep phases, but during REM your brain comes to life. REM sleep is when your brain dreams and re-organizes information. During this phase your brain clears out irrelevant information, boosts your memory by connecting the experiences of the last 24 hours to your previous experiences, and facilitates learning and neural growth.
Without the slow wave and REM sleep phases, the body literally starts to die. If you starve yourself of sleep, you can’t recover physically, your immune system weakens, and your brain becomes foggy.
Or, as the researchers put it, sleep deprived individuals experience increased risk of viral infections, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, and mortality.
To summarise, slow wave sleep helps you recover physically while REM sleep helps you recover mentally.
The amount of time you spend in these phases tends to decrease with age, which means the quality of your sleep and your body’s ability to recover also decrease with age.
There are many factors that impact the aging of body tissues and cells, but it stands to reason that if your body gets less slow wave sleep to restore itself each night, then the aging process will accelerate as a result.
In other words, it seems reasonable to say that getting good sleep is one of your best defenses against aging quickly.
“At any age, most adults need seven and a half to eight hours of sleep to function at their best. Since older people often have trouble attaining this much sleep at night, they frequently supplement nighttime sleep with daytime naps. This can be a successful strategy for accumulating sufficient total sleep over a 24-hour period. However, if you find that you need a nap, it’s best to take one midday nap, rather than several brief ones scattered throughout the day and evening.”
Harvard Medical School
You can’t force yourself to get more REM sleep, for example, during a particular sleep session. All you can do is make sure you get enough sleep and then let your body do the rest.
This is particularly important as you age because the percentage of time spent in REM and slow wave sleep decreases as you get older.
As an example, a 60-year-old may need to sleep for 10 hours to get the same about of REM sleep that a 20-year-old can get in 7 hours. To put it simply: there is no substitute for sleeping.
There is a limit on this recovery process, of course. Your body will do the best it can, but it will never be able to turn a deficit into a surplus. If you want to recover from a night of little sleep, you need to follow it with more sleep than usual.
How To Get Better Sleep
1. Avoid Stimulants & Alcohol
Caffeine causes the release of chemicals in the brain that promote wakefulness and arousal. It’s entire job is to wake you up! The earlier you finish your last caffeinated drink the better.
While alcohol (a depressant) can help you fall asleep faster, it also contributes to poor quality sleep later. It also blocks REM sleep (the most restorative type of sleep), meaning you wake up feeling groggy and unfocused.
2. Change Your Perception
Start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, or like going to the gym (with the key difference that it is both free and enjoyable.) Instead of logging how many steps you’ve done on your Fitbit, track and boast about your shuteye count!
In the same way we have an alarm to wake us, have a set time you will be asleep and aim to be in bed 30 min before this to begin winding down.
Sleep in a pitch black room, and I mean the kind of pitch black where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Melatonin is a biochemical which is produced by the brain’s pineal gland at night — when it’s dark — to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Every single bit of light in your room will affect this.
5. Turn Screens Off
Electronic devices emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness. Using them before bed delays your body’s internal clock, suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
6. Wear Glasses
The amount of light we are exposed to before we go to bed, and blue light specifically, affects our sleep patterns. TV’s, tablets, laptops, phones etc. all kick out blue light. If you do end up using screens, a simple and cheap investment is a set of blue light blocking glasses, which will mitigate the effects.
Our melatonin levels are regulated according to the amount of exposure we had to light during the previous day. So get as much exposure to natural light as you can during the daytime.
8. Wake With Light
Use a sunlight alarm to wake up. This has the dual benefit of allowing you to wake to light which kick starts the natural biological rhythm of your body. While also gently pulling you up through the phases of sleep rather than jolting you awake.
9. Create A Sleep Haven
Your bedroom should be a calming, comfortable haven – designated for sleep and sex only. The more clutter and distractions you’re up against at night, the harder it will be to transition into sleep.
- Keep the room cool
- Remove all electronic devices – tablets, phones etc.
- Keep the room calm – get rid of anything stimulating that distracts from the room’s main purpose
Working out, and especially moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g. walking) is beneficial for reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the length of sleep.
The tipping point for sleep debt is usually around 7 or 7.5 hours, so this is the bare minimum you should be aiming for. Here’s another way to say it: 95 percent of adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep on a routine basis will experience decreased mental and physical performance.
Cumulative sleep debt is robbing companies of billions of dollars in revenue. It’s robbing individuals of sharper mental performance. It’s preventing athletes from performing at their best. And it’s a barrier between you and optimal performance.
The answer is simple, but remarkably underrated in our productivity-obsessed culture: get more sleep.
If you want to reduce stress, enhance recovery rate, and improve performance you need to get the best sleep you possibly can. It is an absolutely critical component in achieving optimal health and fitness. Address this before you start worrying about tweaks in your training regime, or the amount of protein in your diet! If there is such a thing as a ‘magic pill’, sleep is as about as close as you can get to it.
You owe it to yourself to develop better sleep habits. Your body and mind will thank you for it.