Sleep is something most of us know is important for our health. But over the last twenty years, scientific sleep research has begun to show us why sleep is so important and what happens when we don’t get enough of it.
So we wanted to show you why sleep is the most underutilized tool in your health toolkit and five action items you can take to improve your sleep write now.
We are sleeping less than ever before
To set up the right context for our sleep challenge we interviewed Dan Pardi, expert sleep researcher and creator of Dan’s Plan. He told us that we are getting about 20% less sleep on average than we got in 1960.
“In 1960, self reports indicated that the average for Americans was 8.5 hours of time in bed per night. The first investigation in sleep time that I was able to find in the literature was from 1906 and that indicated that people at that time were getting around the same amount, 8.5 hours.”
Since the 1960’s, there has been a continuous decline in our sleep time. Recent reports from the National Sleep Foundation show that Americans are averaging about 6.5 hours of sleep per night during the week and 7 hours 20 minutes on weekends. “So people are trying to play catchup,” Pardi says.
Less sleep dramatically affects our health
In 1983, Rechtschaffen and his colleagues concluded that sleep is just as necessary as food for bodily survival. When we don’t “feed” the body the sleep it needs, we see some dramatic health consequences.
In fact, the current decrease in sleep levels is significant. Pardi says:
“If you study sleep deprivation and sleep restriction in clinical studies, you can see that degree of impairment has very significant outcomes. Sleep has a massive effect on all the physiological systems in the body and when we are not getting enough sleep, we increase our vulnerability points and it can certainly exacerbate a pre-existing condition, create one, and lead to a general feeling of malaise, fatigue, depressed mood.”
Studies show that merely two weeks of reduced sleep can:
- increase appetite and food intake (1, 2)
- decrease insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (3, 4)
- reduce our ability to resist infection (5)
- disturb our mood (6)
- reduce attention and performance (7)
Chronic undersleeping has also been connected to increased risk of obesity in children and adults (8) as well as coronary heart disease and stroke (9).Not sleeping well may be one reason why you are keeping on those extra pounds. We’ll cover more on this topic in a later newsletter after we’ve shared practical tips to improve your sleep.
What does sleep do?
Sleep is still not fully understood. Years ago, sleep was regarded simply as a rest period for the mind and body. But sleep is far more complex than that.
New landmark research has proposed that the core functions of sleep are to “repair, reorganize, and maintain the brain’s neurons” (10) as well as clear toxic metabolic debris, consolidate memory and learning, and impact metabolic and hormonal function (11).
In essence, sleep is one of the master tools for healthy brain and body functioning.
How much sleep do you need?
If we are going to improve our sleep situation, we must know how much sleep we actually need. The National Sleep Foundation states that adults from 26-64 years old need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
However, for many of us who are chronically sleep deprived or have an autoimmune condition or adrenal fatigue, nine to ten hours is a good therapeutic dose to shoot for. In fact, during your sleep challenge, you may just want to schedule an afternoon nap if you’re able to.
4 Ways to Improve Your Sleep
#1 Schedule your sleep time like any other activity.
Most people have a fixed wake-up time due to work but not a set bedtime. Formulate your bedtime by subtracting eight to nine hours from when you need to get up. The quality of your sleep will change each night depending on what you ate, your stress level, and amount of daily activity but you can usually control your time spent in bed. Remember, you will never get eight hours of sleep if you are only in bed for six.
If this means adjusting your bedtime from 12am to 10pm, start by making gradual shifts in 15 or 20 minute increments for the first week.
#2 Be consistent.
Attempt to keep your sleep time consistent. Yes, life happens and our schedules change day to day, but setting your intention to value sleep this month and get to bed on time will take you a long way.
#3 Wear a sleep mask.
Your eyelids are translucent which means light can pass through the closed eyelid into the eye. Dan Pardi tells us that “if light is entering the eye during sleep, it can suppress melatonin by 50% or more.” Simpler than blackout curtains, a quality sleep mask is a powerful tool at home and while traveling. Here is our favorite.
#4 Get your daily dose of light.
Our internal clock, also called our circadian rhythm, in influenced by light and dark. When we don’t get enough natural sunlight exposure during the day, it makes it harder for us to get to sleep at night. Get sunlight upon waking by opening your shades and then going outside. If you work at home or in an office, pick two times during the day to go outside. It doesn’t matter if it is sunny. Cloudy days are still brighter than indoor lights and computers.
#4 Make sleep a priority.
None of these tools matter if you don’t make sleep a priority. Your sleep is as important as the quality of your food. Many people have fasted from food for long periods of time only to improve their health, but no one can fast from sleep. Sleep is a basic ingredient to great health that many of us continue to overlook.
The more our team looks through the literature on sleep, the more it is overwhelmingly apparent that better sleep is one, if not the simplest, way to improve all health indicators, including weight loss, mental performance, better decision-making, and improved ability to fight illness.
Planning meals, fitness activities, and periodic cleanses often top our priority lists. Now let’s take this same focus and apply it to our sleep habits.
- Spiegel, K., Leproult, R., Tasali, E., Penev, P., and Van Cauter, E. Brief Communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels and increased hunger and appetite.Ann Int Med. 2004; 141: 846–850
- Markwald, R.R., Melanson, E.L., Smith, M.R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R.H. et al.Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013; 10: 5695–5700
- Spiegel, K., Leproult, R., and Van Cauter, E. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet. 1999; 354: 1435–1439
- Van Cauter, E., Holmback, U., Knutson, K., Leproult, R., Miller, A., Nedeltcheva, A. et al.Impact of sleep and sleep loss on neuroendocrine and metabolic function. Horm Res.2007; 67: 2–9
- Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Alper, C.M., Janicki-Deverts, D., and Turner, R.B. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169: 62–67
- Dinges, D.F., Pack, F., Williams, K., Gillen, K.A., Powell, J.W., Ott, G.E. et al.Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Sleep. 1997; 20:267–277
- Belenky, G., Wesensten, N.J., Thorne, D.R., Thomas, M.L., Sing, H.C., Redmond, D.P. et al. Patterns of performance degradation and restoration during sleep restriction and subsequent recovery: a sleep dose-response study. J Sleep Res. 2003; 12: 1–12
- Landhuis, C.E., Poulton, R., Welch, D., and Hancox, R.J. Childhood sleep time and long-term risk for obesity: a 32-year prospective birth cohort study. Pediatrics. 2008;122: 955–960
- Cappuccio, F.P., Cooper, D., D'Elia, L., Strazzullo, P., and Miller, M.A. Sleep duration predicts cardiovascular outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Eur Heart J. 2011; 32: 1484–1492
- Savage, V.M. and West, G.B. A quantitative, theoretical framework for understanding mammalian sleep. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007; 104: 1051–1056
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M.J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M. et al. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science. 2013; 342: 373–377