In this fast paced busy environment we live in, many people trade sleep with extra hours of wakefulness to catch up with work or to enjoy a “me-time” after a long day of responsibilities, without realising all possible short-term and long-term impact of such choice.
And I tell you now, trying to catch up with sleep over the weekend is not a solution! Your body needs sleep, just as it needs air and food to function at its best, be healthy energized and in good mood.
Having cravings for snacks and need for caffeine to power through the day is an indication that you need to pay close attention to your sleep.
While the body appears from the outside to be still and inactive, sleep is a time when the body is quite busy. During the night, we restock our supply of hormones, process significant toxins, repair damaged tissue, generate vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminate the effects of stress (such as anxiety, irritability and mental exhaustion), regulate hormones in charge of appetite, form neurons between nerve cells, consolidate memories and process emotions.
Plus sleeping soundly increases motivation to make other healthier lifestyle choices (for example, when well rested, it is easier to eat more healthily).
So you can see how sleep is essential for our physical and mental well-being.
Impact of poor quality sleep
The impact is way beyond feeling tired, irritable and needing a nap the day after a bad sleep night. The accumulated impact over weeks, months and years will result in serious health conditions, and insufficient sleep is linked with early death.
Here are a few other well studied consequences of lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep.
Those who don’t get adequate sleep are more likely to gain weight over time. And this is caused by the increased amount of calories consumed during the day, especially foods consumed later in the evening. Sleep is the time of regulating your hormones such as leptin and ghrelin which control your appetite and feeling of satiety.
Increased risk of chronic disease
Sleep is critical for healthy immune system and lowering inflammatory response. In addition to the restoration of the internal organs and repairing of tissues that happen during sleep so the body can continue to function optimally.
Chronic short sleep duration (<=6 hours of sleep per night) and poor quality of sleep (disrupted sleep pattern) are associated with chronic diseases such as:
and cardiovascular disease.
Noting that sleep apnea is also a risk factor for above conditions.
Increased risk of accidents and injuries
When you are exhausted, both physically and mentally, there is an increased risk of injuries, errors, and accidents. This tired state of mind may lead to mishaps like cutting yourself in the kitchen, falling, or getting into car accidents. Just a single night of mild sleep deprivation can have impact on safe driving
Decline in cognitive function
There are measurable changes in brain activity that show up after a period of sleep deprivation. When you do not get a sufficient amount of sleep, your mental performance suffers, reducing your ability to process new information and perform more complicated tasks. This may also impact your overall mood, focus, and high-level cognitive function. Sleep loss has been shown to impair decision making, which may lead you to make choices that you wouldn’t make if rested – this effect may be even more pronounced as we get older.
Without sufficient rest, you may have trouble keeping your emotions in check. Increased feelings of irritability, anxiety, sadness, and anger are common.
You may even find that you are more vulnerable to unprovoked bouts of laughter or tears. And women are more vulnerable to mood issues related to sleep deprivation.
The biology of Sleep
Circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals, and this should be in sync with the Earth’s natural 24-hour cycle. Here’s why…
Following our circadian rhythm, the pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin (the sleep hormone) which suppresses the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm the brain. (partially by doing the opposite of the stress hormone cortisol).
For ideal sleep, melatonin should be rising steadily and cortisol should be rock-bottom low at bedtime. But note that the pineal gland secretes melatonin largely in response to darkness. And our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise.
So you can see how our evening choices of TV, social media, video games, and email can get in the way of these natural pro-sleep chemical shifts. As these devices mostly display full-spectrum light (including blue-light) which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or not. And if the evening TV or email are the stressful type such as watching the news, crime shows, work email or budgeting, then they add up to the cortisol effect.
Digesting a heavy meal eaten later in the evening can also prevent or interrupt sleep.
For the snoozers
If you are the type that needs an alarm to wake up or keeps snoozing then this is an indication that you didn’t go to sleep at the correct time to get enough hours of sleep that your unique body needs.
Children aged 11 to 17 need between 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep. While those above 18 need 7 to 9 hours of sleep.
It is important to know how many hours you need and I always suggest doing an experiment over the weekend when you are not obliged to wake at a certain time. Sleep normally (note time of sleep) and allow your body to sleep until you wake up naturally feeling rested (note the time of waking). Calculate how many total hours you slept that night to know the duration you need to aim for daily.
This will help you set the ideal sleep time for you and here’s an example.
· You calculated through the experiment that you need 8 hours of sleep
· And you need to wake up at 6 in the morning
· This means you need to be asleep by 10pm at night
So try this and ensure you sleep enough to avoid the snooze button.
How to support your sleep
There are many ways you can improve your sleep through food and lifestyle changes:
Stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends as much as possible.
Eat light evening meals at least 3 hours before bed time.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine, or calming evening activities like a walk outdoors, sipping on herbal teas (such as lavender, chamomile or anise), reading, journalling, hot bath with Epsom salt.
Turn off all full-spectrum light for a full 1-2 hours before bedtime. There are also the options of blue-light blocking eyeglasses, certain settings and apps on devices. However remember that stimulating activities would disrupt sleep.
Make sure your sleep environment is comfortable, cool, and dark.
If noise is an issue in your bedroom (too little OR too much), then you can try soft foam ear plugs and/or the white noise of a fan.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed (same nutrients are required for detoxing and to produce melatonin). Ideally stop caffeine intake by 2pm.
Exercise regularly but not too close to bedtime.
Manage stress with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation.
If you ignore poor sleep for a long time, you will feel the impact. Prioritize sleep and experience how well you would feel physically and mentally to realize that you actually need the good quality sleep. Your body tries to manage until it is not able to and more serious symptoms start emerging.
If you still suffer from disrupted sleep despite the lifestyle changes then work with a functional medicine practitioner to investigate possible underlying issues impacting the melatonin and cortisol production and regulation. Examples include insufficient nutrients, disrupted microbiome, and skewed cortisol diurnal curve.