On the whole, it seems that modern society has a generally negative viewpoint of sleep. Similar to healthy eating and physical activity, sleep often gets clumped into the category of “I know I need to do it, but who has the time?”
Nowhere is that sentiment more apparent than in New York City, “the city that never sleeps”. New Yorkers classically wear 4 hours of sleep like a badge of honor, patting themselves on the back for their productivity, in spite of barely sleeping the night before. But imagine how much more productive they might be on 7 or 8 hours of sleep, with less reliance on nutrient-lacking stimulants that perpetuate a stress response in their bodies and wreak havoc on their health and well-being.
I invite you to start thinking about sleep not as separate from nutrition, but as complimentary to it; another important nutrient that your body requires for optimal health.
Rubin Naiman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep & dream expert, describes sleep and nutrition as being rhythmically related. Our body has many natural rhythms which respond to light & dark, changes of season and various hormone cycles. Dr. Naiman describes these natural rhythms as providing a “back beat to the music to which both nutritional and sleep processes can dance together.”
Why is Sleep so Important?
Repair & Regeneration – Sleep is critical for releaseing growth hormone, and consequently insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), both of which are crucial for tissue repair, protein synthesis and muscle growth.
Sleep is also a primary time for your organs to rest and reset, allowing them to fully process all the input of your day without the constant bombardment of added stimuli.
Hormone Regulation – Besides growth hormone, your body also releases hormones to balance stress and appetite. Cortisol levels get moderated during sleep to compliment and support a functional circadian rhythm.
Your levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) increase, and your levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) decrease, helping to balance your appetite and control your weight.
Memory Consolidation – Sleep is a critical time for your brain to clean house. It disposes of all unnecessary information from your day, helps to form and store new memories and allows you to solidify all the important new information you obtained during wakefulness. In short, sleep is crucial for brain health.
Mood Regulation – There is an understood relationship between insomnia and depression. In fact, Dr. Naiman refers to them as different stages of the same disease, saying “insomnia is an early symptom of depression and depression is a late-stage manifestation of insomnia.” For a happy, balanced, calm and rational mindset, sleep is very important.
Effects of Not Sleeping Enough
There are copious studies available that draw strong correlations between sleep loss and other major health issues:
- Weight gain (hormone disruption)
- Lowered immune response (up to a 50% increased risk of viral infections)
- Higher risk of injury (lack of focus, concentration and coordination)
- Decreased mental performance (more chance for errors and accidents)
- Difficulty balancing mood and emotions (risk of serious mood disorders)
- Impaired glucose tolerance/insulin resistance (obesity/diabetes)
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk of cancer
- Increased risk of auto-immune disorders
- Increased risk of dementia/Alzheimer’s (REM-loss = memory loss)
What is Sleep Anyway?
We tend to define sleep as the absence of something else (e.g. it’s not dreaming and it’s not wakefulness), but we have a more challenging time defining what it actually is. We look at sleep in terms of its value in the waking world, as it can, in fact, help us be much better waking people (improved immunity, productivity, memory, appearance, etc.)
But what if our understanding of sleep is tragically deficient? Dr. Naiman looks at the nature of sleep in a beautifully philosophical way, calling sleep a servant to wakefulness. He says that “sleep is a secondary citizen in consciousness” and he invites us to challenge the idea that wakefulness is the center of consciousness.
I interpret this as a call for drastic change in our current thinking; as a return to valuing our intuition, our spiritual bodies and our subconscious minds. Wakefulness is not the only type of consciousness and we should be careful about under-estimating the inherent value of sleep and dreams.
Reframing the Narrative Around Sleep
Culturally, we devalue sleep and associate the need for sleep as a weakness, rather than as an intuitive response to our body’s natural signaling. We see sleep as unproductive. We see sleepiness as a need for fuel, instead of as a need for rest. We confuse rest with recreation (e.g. watching a movie or reading a book) and we confuse rest with inebriation.
How many of you find yourself at the end of the day, exhausted and unfocused, forcing yourself to stay up too late in order to pump out those last few moments of productivity? How many of you find yourself reaching for food in this moment, to try to regain that extra tidbit of energy, instead of putting yourself to bed and finishing your tasks in the morning with a fresh mind?
How many of you have gone to bed, anxious about an impending issue, only to wake and not even remember why you were so stressed about it? Suddenly, after a good night’s sleep, having the solution to the problem present itself?
Just like any good component of self-care, sleep is truly a productive activity; a forgotten solution to treating so many of our common health problems. It would be great to reframe sleeping and dreaming as vital for processing the day’s information, assisting in problem-solving, managing stress and improving our overall health.
Getting Our Sleep Back on Track
At night, we are designed to dissipate heat and cool down slowly, reaching our coolest just before the dawn and then starting to heat up again. This is completely symbiotic with our natural environment.
The problem is, we have lost touch with this symbiosis; this circadian rhythm. We live in an over-heated environment and have over-heated lifestyles. We consume too much food, too much information, too many toxins and too much artificial light. We are inflamed on a cellular level and cannot cool down at night, which means we cannot get quality rest and repair.
Dr. Naiman says that the secret to a good night’s sleep is a good day’s waking. One way to accomplish this is by emphasizing a cooling, non-inflammatory lifestyle:
- Speak to your doctor about modifying your medications for regulating sleep and mood – Virtually every anti-depressant and sleep aid on the market suppresses REM sleep and dreaming. This is the critical part of sleeping when we reap all the amazing health benefits.
- Consider limiting your alcohol consumption – While alcohol in small amounts does show some benefit, many of us consume more than the recommended amount. Not only does alcohol interrupt dreaming, in large amounts and in conjunction with an inflammatory condition (such as an auto-immune disorder) it can increase heat and inflammation in the body.
- Consider limiting your caffeine intake – Caffeine works to keep adrenaline pumping in the body. Too much of this stress hormone will prevent quality sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping or are waking feeling unrested, experiment with cutting out caffeine for a few days or limiting yourself to caffeine only in the morning.
- Turn off the computer and television, and put down the phone – It is thought that the blue light from our screens may limit the production of melatonin and may suppress the brainwaves that produce sleep. Consider creating a nighttime ritual that includes turning off all electronic devices an hour before sleeping. You can also purchase blue-blocking glasses, which supposedly help block blue light from having this negative impact on sleep.
- Don’t go to sleep on a full stomach – Your body will always choose digestion over sleep, so if you go to bed right after eating, your organs will not get that much needed rest and repair time and the possibility of deep, regenerative sleep will be sacrificed. Also, the potential for acid reflux will be heightened; another culprit in the disruption of quality sleep.
- Engage in regular exercise – Regular exercise can help reduce bad stress and reset circadian rhythms. This means not only will it make you tired, it will make you tired at the right time.
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool – Your sensory organs (e.g. eyes and ears) and their associated musculature are designed to respond to light and sound even if you are in an unconscious state. The darker and more quiet your room, the more profound your sleep. Also, the body is designed to cool at night in conjunction with its surrounding environment. A cool room will better assist the body in this process and make for a much more sound sleeping experience.
- Invest in comfortable bedding – If you are able to, invest some money into an amazing mattress, sheets and pillows. You spend a lot of hours in your bed. Think of it as an investment into your health and wellness for years to come.
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