Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Is sleep really that important?
I read Matthew Walker’s book entitled ‘Why we sleep” shortly after having moved to Bangkok two years ago. At that time, my children’s school was wholeheartedly trying to impress upon the parents the importance of adequate sleep for their students. Systematically the school was educating the parents and the students on the discoveries outlined by Professor Matthew Walker in the book because “sleep is infinitely more complex, profoundly more interesting and alarmingly more health relevant” than most of us realise. My curiosity was captured so I bought a copy of the book, and the importance of a good night's sleep and even a well timed afternoon nap has remained with me ever since. It is impossible to capture everything in the book but here I share a few highlights with you.
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep is not the absence of wakefulness, it is far more than that. Sleep affects so many of our biological rhythms, that there is not one aspect of our health or happiness not influenced by the quality of our sleep.
Adequate sleep is imperative for restoring the brain's capacity for learning and making room for new memories. It's a time when our brains actively sort through and digest the information we have absorbed during the day. We have different stages of sleep throughout the night, light NREM (non rapid eye movement) sleep, deep NREM sleep and REM sleep which all offer different benefits at different times during the night. If you have less than 6 hours sleep a night, you are short changing the brain of it’s learning and restoration capacity. Sleep allows our brains to effectively process information moving it from our short term memory system to our long term memory system or to delete information entirely. The book explains it is not just practise that makes perfect but it is practise followed by a night of sleep that leads to perfection, because our brains need the delayed ‘offline’ learning that occurs exclusively during sleep to function optimally.
It is not only academic learning that benefits from sleep, motor skills are also boosted by sleep. Muscle memory is a phrase that many of us are familiar with, however it is in fact brain memory we are truly referring to. A muscle not connected to the brain cannot perform any skilled actions or store skilled routines or movements, so it is our brain memory that stores this information. Thus athletic performance is also greatly enhanced by sufficient sleep to cement these desired neural pathways in our brain. Obtaining less than 8 hours of sleep a night and especially less than 6 hours of sleep also causes an individual's time to physical exhaustion to drop by 10-30%, simply put the body’s ability to maintain the metabolic outputs required for peak performance drop with lack of sleep. Post performance sleep is equally important as it accelerates the physical recovery of the body repairing muscles, replenishing energy stores and reducing any inflammation. So if you want to be a top athlete you not only need to train, but you also need to sleep.
The book also discusses the almost magical REM stage of sleep, which due to the astonishing change in the active chemicals present in the brain at this time offers us the additional benefits of dreaming and a pathway to creativity. (REM sleep occurs predominantly in the second half of a night’s sleep). Dreaming provides us with a form of overnight therapy and can take the sting out of painful, even traumatic, emotional episodes you may have experienced during the day facilitating some emotional resolutions by the morning. Creativity is enhanced specifically during the REM stage when an informational alchemy occurs which seemingly far outstrips our wakeful thinking ability. This “offline” time provides a nighttime theatre in which our brain tests out and builds connections between vast stores of information. It enables us to work through problems and process sticking points in our learning, there really is truth to the old adage “let’s sleep on it”.
For those chasing what may feel like the ever elusive goal of weight loss, focusing on the quality of sleep should be the first priority. Simply being tired makes everything much tougher, making it harder to resist tempting foods and oiling the path to react more emotionally towards eating. Tiredness also wreaks havoc with your hormonal signals. “One study showed if you get only 5 hours sleep a night your fullness hormone plummets 18% and the hormone that makes you feel hungry soars by 28%...meaning that after a bad night's sleep you are likely to consume 22% more calories than you otherwise would”. Not to mention just the fact of being awake longer opens more opportunities for eating or grazing on food when actually we should aim to have a period of at least a full 12 hours per 24 hours clear of ingesting any calories (so also resist the sugary, milky and alcoholic drinks during this period) to allow our bodies to reset hunger signals, to effectively digest all we have consumed for that day and allow our body’s full fat burning mode to kick in.
In addition to the benefits of sleep I have briefly mentioned here the book discusses the impact of chronic sleep deprivation (experienced by more of us than we may think) on a vast array of topics like driving, workplace productivity, education, reproduction and various diseases like heart disease, diabetes, depression and Alzheimers. The impact of stimulants like caffeine and the true validity of some treatments to aid sleeping such as sleeping pills is also discussed along with the varying sleep requirements humans have during their lifespan. I highly recommend reading the book to more fully understand just how important sleep is to all of us.
But for now how can we improve our sleep?
These simple points will help improve your sleep patterns, boost your body's natural circadian rhythm and optimise the benefits you get from your time of slumber….
Get exposure to natural daylight in the morning, just 20 mins drinking your morning coffee outside will benefit you, even on a cloudy day.
Darken your nights, turn off electronic devices at least 60 mins before bedtime.
Keep the same routine, including on weekdays and weekends.
Don’t use the snooze button which creates undue stress on your system with repeated forced awakening.
Reduce caffeine intake especially after lunchtime and reduce your alcohol intake. Alcohol sedates us but does not promote the healthy functions of sleep we discuss here.
Eat 2-3 hours before going to bed allowing your body to digest food before you sleep and giving yourself ideally at least a full 12 hours without taking in calories.
Why we sleep by Matthew Walker
Feel Great Lose Weight by Dr Rangan Chatterjee