Some Things Never Change (But Sleep Has)
3 Oct 2019
Politicians, athletes, entrepreneurs - over the years, various personalities have proudly claimed that they survive and thrive on minimal sleep.
But if the boasts are true, these people are, basically, miracles. Because 10,000 different research papers largely agree: the percentage of adults who can survive on six hours (or fewer) sleep and show no impairment is technically 0%.
In other words, no-one can maintain, let alone excel, when they're deficient in lengthy, solid, healthy sleep. No one.
Our changing relationship with sleep
Some of us, particularly younger people, see sleep not as a physiological necessity – which it is – but an inconvenience, an annoying thing to have to do today.
But sleep is important, now more than ever.
Sleep might seem like a period of waste and inactivity but it’s the opposite. Sleep is a frenzied time for the mind as we process information and file raw data appropriately into either the short term or long term memory. In an era of limitless information, we need extra time for the job.
In the body, sleep enables the repair of damaged muscle tissue and the recalibration of our hormones, including cortisol, the body's stress chemical. Sleep is arguably the most effective day-to-day tool we can use to balance our health and wellbeing.
All change since the war
A two year study by the US National Sleep Foundation concluded that adults should get absolutely no fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. Ideally it should be more like eight or nine hours.
Back in the 1940s, the average person hit that very sleep quota. But things have changed. Today, on average, we get just 6.5 hours of sleep per night. It’s almost a 20% reduction in just one lifetime.
Why is it happening? 24/7 stimulus and damaging new patterns and behaviours, such as using screens in bed, don’t help. But we have also seen the widespread disintegration of sleep routines - sleep hygiene as it’s sometimes called.
Losing a step
When we’re fatigued we’re not as sharp. We don’t process info as quickly and we impair our decision-making.
Some of us don’t mind getting through the day on half a tank of sleep, maybe we don’t work demanding jobs or getting through that last series of Mindhunter was a sacrifice worth making.
But it’s not just your mind and cognitive powers that’ll feel the brunt. It’s the body too. When tired, we’re way more likely to compensate with energy drinks, caffeine, carbs and sugar. The brain naturally reches for the easiest fuel source to prop up a flagging body.
But there are costs attached to that: being over caffeinated or having too much sugar on board can lead to anxiety (perpetuating bad sleep cycles), and when there’s carbs and sugar involved, you’re probably looking at weight gain too.
The relationship between sleep and weight gain is telling and it boils down to this: lack of sleep = fatter. Not necessarily being overweight, per se, but more body fat.
Even if we eat well and spend plenty of time at the gym, a lack of sleep will cost us.
Because there is an absolute correlation between longer sleep (eight hours or more) and muscle gain. Conversely, there’s a correlation between suboptimal sleep (six hours or less) and fat gain.
In other words, if you eat well and do all the right things at the gym, you will optimise your bodily gains if you sleep eight hours. If you eat and train exactly the same way but only get six hours of sleep, more of you will turn into fat and not muscle.
If science and health don’t prompt you to rethink your sleep life, maybe vanity will.
Sleep is like the operating theatre of muscle reconditioning, we need to spend around eight hours in there if we’re to get the greatest return on investment on our training sessions.
A warm shower before bed
Over the years, academic studies have regularly reported on our ailing sleep lives, but one recurring question is how to make improvements.
One of the simplest tricks one can adopt to speed up sleep onset latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) is to have a warm shower half an hour before bedtime.
This insight came as a result of a 2017 survey published in the European Journal of Sport Science when a team from John Moores University in Liverpool – working with youth soccer players – set out to find an easy, practical way to improve the sleep lives of athletes.
The survey sought to build on a known link between skin temperature and the onset of sleep. In the experimentation phase, participants showered (with water set around 40°C) for ten minutes each night 30 minutes before bed; to see if it made a difference.
Sure enough, such a simple, practical activity before bed speeds up the process of falling asleep – which in turn may lead to improvements in sleep quality – so the body is able to recuperate more effectively.
Banish the screens
Showering half an hour before bed is a good tip to accelerate falling asleep. That is unless you shower, hit the hay … and then fire up Facebook or Netflix.
Having gadgets as part of the bedtime ritual might, by now, feel normal and natural, but it’s hugely detrimental to sleep.
And it's not just for practical oh go on let's watch another episode reasons (and you’re still glued at 3am), there's science behind it.
Most modern gadgets have LED screens which emit a powerful blue light. That light inhibits the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Even if there is no blue light or measures have been taken to reduce blue light impact (a study by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York shows that Apple Night Shift's effect on melatonin is negligible) the last thing a person needs before they fall asleep is an argument on Facebook, a fright on Netflix, or a nasty surprise in the online bank account.
Just the act of consuming information late in the day is enough to put the brain in hyperdrive.
Bedtime is supposed to be about darkness and silence but screens, instead, fill it with noise, light and activity. So it really is best to banish screens from bed. Ideally, try to stop swiping around an hour before lights out and leave devices to charge in another room to quell any temptations.
If you really must sleep in the room with your phone or tablet then at least turn notifications off.
Ban the iPad bring back the paper pad
Part of our changing relationship with sleep, as you read earlier, is the disintegration of a regular or habitual sleep regime. Sticking to a fusty old routine doesn't have a lot of currency when there's always something new to tweet, post, watch, like or share.
But going back to basics really can help. Keping a notebook next to the bed is both a solid life hack and an effective sleep aid.
By noting down any lingering ideas, action points or memos from the preceding 24 hours, we jumpstart the info purge that goes on during sleep. We effectively give the brain less to process, compile and filter from the day’s activity.
Sleep also aids our creativity, probably more than social media.
When we do it well, healthy sleep also means dreams. Waking up to a notepad is an ideal way to capture creative and good ideas that emerge from dreamworld so they can be scrutinised in the cold light of day.
Stress, work, screens and stimuli - the reasons why we're sleeping less are obvious. But humans cultivated their sleep patterns over thousands of years of evolution - to set back long-established, healthy norms by so much in just one lifetime is concerning.
If the amount of data we consumed of a day stayed at 1940s level, we might cope reasonably well with a dent in sleep time.
But it’s not. Fact is, we now smash through more info than ever before and it’s all pumped directly into the brain. We can’t hold it all upstairs without having sufficient time to process. Today, at 6.5 hours, we’re simply not giving ourselves this time.
More than that, we’re neglecting the body’s natural recalibration rhythms and opening ourselves up to poorer cognitive performance, not to mention weight gain. Even the super healthy gym rats among us compromise muscle gains and body composition if they’re powered by insufficient sleep.
Sleep - it’s not wasteful downtime, it’s about the most important thing we can do for our body. Sooner or later reducing sleep time by 20% will take its toll. Be honest with yourself - maybe it already is?
Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity
15 May 2020
Florence Nightingale Foundation
13 May 2020