We want it all — to make a mark at work, have a buzzing social life, spend quality time with family, learn something new, travel the world and so much more. While wanting it all may be a good thing, we are quite often in a hurry to achieve all of these at the same time — while also being the first to do so among our social circle.
But we’ve all got only 24 hours a day. So how do we stay one step ahead? How do we gain advantage over our peers? We work harder, work longer and squeeze every minute of every day to make those 24 hours as productive as we can.
And the first place we instinctively look when we’re making a sacrifice is the amount of sleep we get. After all, we’re told to spend a whopping 8 hours in a state of inactivity — meaning non-productivity. If you do the math, it means that by the time you’re 60 you would have spent at least 20 years of your life sleeping!
So it begs the question: why waste 30% of your life being unproductive? Why waste that time sleeping and being lazy when you can use that same time to get ahead of everyone else?
It doesn’t help that our beliefs are further supported and strengthened by famous business owners and world leaders who proudly talk about their 4-hour sleep schedule. After all, they’ve made it big. Maybe if we slept less, we’d be able to achieve it all too.
And that seems quite logical too, right? These success stories have clearly managed to survive on the bare minimum hours of sleep — maybe that’s the formula for success and wealth that works, right? Wrong!
Bold statement? Sure. But in this article, we’ll take you through the actual science behind sleep and back up that statement. You’ll also get an insight to several myths, questions and facts related to sleep — jet lag, caffeine, alcohol, popular idioms, mythology etc.
The science of sleep
But first, what is sleep?
Is that even a question? We all know what it is. After all, we’ve been doing it for as long as we can remember — even before we came into the world. But, if we had to, how would we define sleep? What is this thing our body automatically does every night for multiple hours? Most people have never consciously thought about it. And so we asked a few people across age groups a simple question : What is sleep?
Here are some of the responses:
Time to switch off and rest.
Sleep is love. Sleep is life.
Time to restore, recharge and reset.
I don’t get enough of it.
Just like love, sleep means different things to different people. But, just like any other difficult question, the most simplified answer came from a child: It is something I do every night before I wake up to go to school.
But how would one define sleep scientifically or objectively?
Sleep is a state of body and mind that naturally recurs (roughly) every 24 hours and has the following characteristics:
- It is reversible: You will definitely come out of it and go back to being awake
- Reduced reaction to external stimuli: If you’re awake and someone walks into your room, you will instinctively check who walked in. But when you’re asleep, you won’t look in their direction. In fact, you probably won’t even know someone just walked in
- Loss of external awareness: While your sensory organs are still working, you somehow disconnect from and lose consciousness of the outside world. You also lose conscious awareness of time. Quite often, you sleep only for a few minutes but wake up feeling like you overslept or vice versa
- Lowered muscle tone: If you observe someone who falls asleep while they’re sitting, the most obvious changes you see are: their head doesn’t stay upright anymore, their body slouches, or perhaps their mouth stays open, accompanied by the occasional, embarrassing drool
What makes you sleep?
What happens every single night when your body starts telling you it’s time to hit the sack? There are two independent factors that tell your body when it’s time to sleep and time to wake up:
- Circadian Rhythm
- Sleep Pressure
Factor 1: Circadian Rhythm
Simply put, the Circadian rhythm is your body’s internal 24-hour clock located deep within your brain. It communicates to your brain and other parts of your body in a recurring, repeating cycle that you’re supposed to be alert during the day and that you’re tired and need rest during the night. It cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals and is also known as your sleep wake cycle.
So what controls the Circadian rhythm?
Within the hypothalamus which is a small region located at the base of the brain lies the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). The SCN receives information about light directly from the eyes and controls your Circadian rhythm.
Light is the single largest factor that regulates our Circadian rhythm. Light gives our brain the cue that it’s day time, or time to stay awake, while lack of sunlight indicates that it’s time to sleep. Come sunrise or morning, the brain knows it’s time to wake up again. This helps reset the 24-hour biological clock and the process repeats every single day.
Apart from light, there are other factors that can influence the Circadian rhythm — as long as they have a predictable, repeating pattern — such as body temperature fluctuations and regular meal times.
And how exactly does outside light affect the SCN?
The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) communicates the repeating signal of day and night to your brain and body using a hormone called melatonin — commonly called the darkness hormone. When it’s dark at night, your eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired. Your brain, in turn, sends a signal to your body to release melatonin, which makes your body tired. Once you’re asleep, the melatonin secretion decreases and stops completely when it’s morning. This is a signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up.
Light — either from the sun or a phone screen — affects the release of melatonin
The secretion of melatonin thus increases as it gets darker and decreases as it gets brighter. However, melatonin is only responsible for signalling time of sleepiness and wakefulness and has no role to play in the act of sleeping itself.
Rise and fall of melatonin levels
In this manner, melatonin helps maintain the body’s Circadian rhythm. That’s why your Circadian rhythm tends to coincide with the cycle of day and night and is almost as long as one day. But the process of how your body releases melatonin can be easily disrupted. For example, things like jet lag, working in shifts, poor vision, daylight savings time, or binge-watching your favourite show through the night can all disrupt the body’s normal melatonin cycle and thus disrupt your Circadian rhythm.
So then, what causes jet lag?
We now know that light tells you it’s time to wake up and darkness signals bedtime. Does that mean if you locked yourself in a room devoid of any light, you’d keep sleeping? The simple answer is no! But a more detailed answer can be explained by understanding how jet lag affects us.
Let’s say you have to travel westward from India to the US. Let’s say you take off from India at midnight and land in New York in the daytime. While it is broad daylight — and technically time for you to be alert and awake — your body clock is still on your old 24-hour cycle. Your old Circadian rhythm believes that it is nighttime and sends strong signals that you need to sleep. Vice versa, when it is nighttime in the US, you find it hard to fall asleep. Again, all thanks to your Circadian rhythm.
Fortunately, your brain doesn’t stay in this state of confusion for too long. It uses daylight as a cue to readjust your Circadian rhythm. Dr. Matthew Walker, a renowned neuroscientist, says that for every day you are in a new time zone, your Suprachiasmatic Nucleus readjusts by only 1 hour. Do the math and you’ll understand that it’ll take a few days before your Circadian rhythm naturally aligns itself to the new time zone.
So, everyone’s Circadian rhythm in a particular area would be the same, right?
Just because the sun rises and sets at the same time in a particular time zone, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s Circadian rhythm is the same. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. Interestingly, your circadian rhythm changes as you grow older. Even more so interestingly, two people of the same age, gender also have different circadian rhythms.
And that’s why we tend to see two types of people:
- Morning Person or Early Bird: These are the early to bed, early to rise folks
- Night Person or Night Owl: They prefer to sleep late and wake up late. Even if they tried, they would find it difficult to fall asleep early. Wake them up early and they won’t be able to function well.
Fun fact : it’s not so much personal preference as it is genetics that plays a role in determining which of the above two chronotypes you belong to. The next time you call a night person lazy, you may want to rethink it! To take that thought further, isn’t it unfair that the second chronotype is forced to wake up early for school, college, exams, work, important meetings etc? They don’t get enough sleep AND they’re put in an environment where they’re expected to perform with a not-so-alert brain.
So now that we know this, doesn’t the saying
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”
seem scientifically flawed?
The great news is that, these days, many organisations (including ours) encourage employees to start and end work at a time that best suits them.
Factor 2: Sleep Pressure
Adenosine is a chemical that builds up in your brain with every waking hour. Think of it like an account keeper, who keeps track of every minute you spend in a state of wakefulness. As adenosine builds up through the day, it builds up the feeling of sleepiness. The more you stay awake, the more adenosine gets accumulated and the more your desire to sleep. This is called sleep pressure.
The only way to counter this pressure is to sleep it off. Unlike hunger, where you lose your appetite if you don’t eat for long enough, a lack of sleep will cause your body to start shutting down. That explains why, after a long, sleepless night, you could doze off for a few minutes without even realising it.
How your Circadian rhythm & sleep pressure work together on your sleep-wake cycle
Your Circadian rhythm repeats itself approximately every 24 hours. The Circadian rhythm begins its activity a few hours before you wake up, peaks by early afternoon (in healthy adults), and then continues to fall until it dips significantly around 10 or 11 PM. At the same time, your adenosine levels start building up from the time you’re awake, slowly increasing sleep pressure. Come nightfall, after you’ve been awake for about 15 hours, your adenosine levels are at their peak.
This combined effect of high adenosine and low Circadian activity makes you feel very drowsy and signals that it’s time to fall asleep. Once you’re asleep, adenosine levels start dropping and Circadian activity starts increasing. When it’s time to wake up, adenosine levels drop once more and the Circadian activity is amplified.
What actually goes on in your body and brain when you sleep?
The entire time you’re asleep, your brain cycles several times between two types of sleep — REM sleep and NREM sleep. These two types of sleep differ from each other in:
- Brainwave activity
- Muscle activity
- Eye movement
REM sleep is known as Rapid Eye Movement sleep or dream sleep. While your brain is relatively quiet during most of your sleep, during REM sleep your brain comes to life. This phase of sleep is characterized by strong activation in the visual, motor, emotional & autobiographical memory regions of the brain. However, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking — is turned off. That’s the culprit behind all those absurd dreams.
During this phase of sleep, your body and brain experience the following:
- High brain activity: Similar to activity levels while you’re awake
- Rapid movement: Eyeballs move rapidly from left to right underneath your eyelids
- Dreams: You tune into a world of fantasy and your dreams have no logical boundaries
- Rise in body temperature
- Faster rate of breathing
- Increased heart rate & blood pressure: Values are almost close to what they would be while you’re awake
- Loss of muscle tone: You lose muscle tone for all voluntary muscles. You’re practically paralysed and that’s why you don’t act out all your dreams
NREM sleep stands for non-REM sleep, in which you experience the following:
- Low brain activity: Your brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli
- No eye movement
- Drop in body temperature
- Regularised breathing
- Fall in blood pressure & heart rate
NREM sleep is further categorised into 4 stages — known respectively as NREM 1–4 — which progressively indicate how deeply you’re sleeping.
- NREM 1: This is the stage of drowsiness just before you fall asleep or when you awaken momentarily in your sleep
- NREM 2: This is the stage associated with the actual onset of sleep
- NREM 3 & NREM 4: This is called slow wave sleep and considered the deepest stage of sleep. It’s really hard to wake someone up during this stage
REM & NREM sleep cycles
A healthy individual cycles through all stages of NREM and REM sleep alternately — several times through the night. Studies suggest that for a healthy young adult, the alternating cycle of NREM-REM occurs every 90 minutes and will occur about 4–6 times during a good night’s sleep.
However, the proportion of REM and NREM sleep in every cycle doesn’t stay fixed through the night. When you fall asleep, you spend a greater proportion of your initial sleep time in NREM sleep, while the proportion of REM or dream sleep increases significantly as you’re closer to waking up. No wonder those dreams you have just before you wake up seem so vivid!
However, this pattern doesn’t hold true throughout our life. For example, a newborn will spend significantly longer hours in REM sleep than in NREM sleep; as we grow older this proportion almost reverses. This variation in proportion will all make sense once you understand the distinctive purposes of each of the sleep types.
Numerous functions of the brain are restored by & depend on sleep. No one type of sleep accomplishes all. Each stage accomplishes different benefits at different times through your sleep.
Purpose of NREM sleep:
NREM sleep is known to:
- Have a restorative effect on the body
- Help the body recuperate
- Help improve memory
During NREM sleep, memories we have made and information we have recently learned during wakefulness are moved from the short-term memory pockets in the brain to long-term memory pockets. This has a two-fold benefit:
You make more space in the short-term memory pockets to learn something new
You remember textbook-like factual information well as it’s now consolidated in your long-term memory pockets
So if you’re ever feeling like you’re just not able to absorb new information or that you’re not able to remember things you learnt recently, sleep on it! Once you wake up, you’ll be fresh and will be able to both learn new things as well as remember things you learnt.
Ever wondered how a seemingly difficult new activity like learning to walk, cycle, swim, drive etc. soon becomes second nature? A lot of the reinforcement of skilled memory happens while we are in NREM 2 sleep — particularly the last 2 hours of an 8-hour sleep cycle.
Thus, during NREM sleep, your brain mainly works on storing and strengthening new skills and information.
Purpose of REM sleep:
During REM sleep, the emotion- and memory-related parts of the brain are activated. Your brain makes connections between the vast bits of information you have gathered through the day. But these connections are not the obvious, logical ones that our waking brain could figure out easily. In fact, the brain forms distant and non-obvious associations, thereby improving creativity and problem-solving skills. If you’re stuck on a problem or feel you have a creative block, simply sleep it off and try again the next day!
REM sleep’s ability to form complex associations also helps us learn things like language or grammatical rules and associations better.
Further, REM sleep increases your ability to recognise and interpret emotional cues — especially from facial expressions. Deprive someone of REM sleep and they will not be able to clearly read emotional cues and might end up making decisions that could have dangerous outcomes.
REM sleep also helps build emotional IQ i.e. our ability to regulate our emotions and even helps remove unwanted, overlapping memories. The sleeping brain can quickly figure out which memories to keep and which ones to delete.
REM sleep has two main goals:
Helps you remember details of experiences and integrate them with pre-existing knowledge to put them into long-term memory
Helps you forget or minimise the the degree of emotion associated with your memories
This is why certain memories from your childhood are still so very vivid — almost like you could replay the entire scene minute by minute. Most of these memories are of an emotional nature. However, when you recollect that memory, the degree of emotion is almost reduced. You know it was a sad memory but don’t feel as sad as you did back then.
Now, let’s use this information to understand the variation in proportions of REM and NREM sleep as we grow older. Newborns spend a vast majority of their sleep cycle in REM sleep since their brain isn’t fully developed yet and REM sleep is used to build the various neural connections of a growing, developing brain. As the child grows, and the neural connections are established, it then becomes time to focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of these connections. This is where NREM sleep plays an important role, which is why you need proportionately more of it by the time you are an adult.
NREM sleep helps store new facts and information while REM sleep integrates past experiences and emotions and helps build associations between different pieces of information
NREM sleep helps you recover physically while REM sleep helps you recover mentally and emotionally
As you can see, no one type of sleep is more important than the other. Each type of sleep plays a crucial role in our lives. Losing out on any one of these types will have a significant impact on you — mentally, emotionally and physiologically.
Common questions, facts and myths about sleep
Can caffeine help me stay awake?
When you have a work deadline or you’re doing some last-minute cramming for an exam, your list of must-have items will most likely include strong coffee or cans of energy drinks to help you power through the night. This is because the caffeine present in energy drinks and coffee helps you stay up and remain alert so you can get your work done. How so? Does it kill sleep? Not really; it merely delays the onset of sleep.
Caffeine temporarily blocks the effect of adenosine. While adenosine keeps building up with every waking minute and strongly tries to tell your body that you need to sleep, caffeine simply blocks the receptors in the brain that receive these signals. Simply put, your brain is just not aware of how much adenosine has built up and you don’t feel any sleep pressure.
However, as soon the caffeine leaves your body, you suddenly feel a sense of extreme fatigue & sleepiness from all the built-up adenosine. It’s like your energy plummets all of a sudden. This is commonly known as a caffeine crash. Unless you drink more caffeine to counter the sleepiness, and eventually start a vicious cycle of dependency on caffeine, it will be almost impossible to stay awake once the caffeine you’ve consumed leaves your body.
Is it true that alcohol helps you sleep better?
The notion that alcohol helps you fall asleep easily and sleep soundly is just that — a notion. Alcohol blocks the part of your brain that is responsible for controlling your impulses and your behaviour. This explains why it helps you loosen up and become more extroverted. However, after a while, it starts blocking other parts of the brain, making you feel sluggish — and soon you’re ready to slip out of consciousness. But what you slip into is not really natural sleep.
Alcohol disrupts your sleep in two ways:
- It disturbs your sleep through the night but you don’t remember it when you wake up, which means you lose out on the restorative benefits of sleep
- It strongly suppresses your REM sleep — the type that’s responsible for making complex associations in your brain. It suppresses your REM sleep to such an extent that when the alcohol starts to leave your body, your brain tries to make up for all the lost REM sleep — this is called REM rebound
If we know that the last two hours of NREM 2 sleep play a critical role in improving motor skills, consider those athletes who wake up in the early hours of the morning to get their practise sessions. Most coaches encourage an early morning schedule, not realising that athletes will, in all likelihood, sleep at the same time as most other people and then have to wake up earlier than usual. This invariably means they’re losing out on the most important part of their sleep — the part that ensures their skills are further sharpened. This two-hour sleep period is what makes the difference between a gold medalist and a participant, not to mention that they miss out the restorative and recuperative functions of sleep. After all, athletes’ bodies go through a lot of physical strain and wear and tear. Post-performance sleep restores & refuels them with energy, helps in cellular and muscular repair and aids in recovery from inflammation — all of which is vital to improved performance.
It is no surprise then that Usain Bolt, the famous sprinter, sleeps somewhere between nine and a half to ten hours a night and takes naps strategically during the day. Tennis player Roger Federer and basketball player LeBron James sleep 12 hours as well!
And it’s not just world-class athletes who need more sleep. Researchers conducted a five-week study on the Stanford basketball team to assess the impact of sleep on athletic performance. During the study, these players slept for at least ten hours every night — as opposed to a typical eight-hour sleep routine. During the study, the researchers measured the basketball players’ speed and accuracy and compared them with the pre-study period. The results were clear:
- Free-throw shooting accuracy increased by 9%
- Three-point shooting accuracy increased by 9.2%
- Players were 0.6 seconds faster when sprinting for 80 metres
In addition, a lack of sleep increases the risk of getting injured, the cost of which is fairly high for a professional athlete. In fact, Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who has done over two decades of research on sleep, had this to say in his bestselling book, Why We Sleep: Sleep is the most potent, powerful and sophisticated form there is of any performance enhancer that has game winning potential!
And it’s legal too!
Throughout history, there have been several examples of great scientific discoveries and fantastic creative achievements that have all been attributed to their creators’ dreams. For example, the world’s first sci-Fi novel, Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley, was inspired by a dream. And Paul McCartney, lead singer of The Beatles, composed the tune of the chart-topping song Yesterday in his dreams. Even Albert Einstein is known to have discovered the Theory of Relativity after having a very vivid dream. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that dreams really can have a big impact on reality!
While most Indians instantly recognise this character from Ramayana, let’s do a quick recap of his story for those who don’t. Kumbhakarna was Raavana’s brother, and was known for his unusually long sleep times and bad temper.
As the story goes, Kumbhakarna was granted a boon by Lord Brahma. However, the Devas feared that if Kumbhakarna was given unlimited power, Raavana would use it to destroy them. And so they sought help from Goddess Saraswati, who made it so that when Kumbhakarna asked for Indrasaana (the home of Lord Indra), Lord Brahma heard it as Nidrasaana (a bed to sleep on) and when he asked for Nirdevatvam (destruction of Devas), it was misheard as Nidravatvam (sleep).
Of course, this is the stuff of legend. But what if it were somehow true? Researchers have compared the myth of Kumbhakarna to scientific literature, and have concluded that he was possibly suffering from Klein-Levin syndrome — a rare sleeping disorder characterized by persistent episodic hypersomnia and cognitive or mood changes. That just goes to show that there’s more than one reason to understand your sleep cycle better — too little sleep can be just as dangerous as too much. And they can both affect your mood!
Earlier, we talked about business heads and world leaders who seem to thrive on very little sleep. There are several successful leaders who are known for how little they sleep — Jack Dorsey, Indra Nooyi and Winston Churchill to name a few.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was believed to have slept for as little as four hours per night. According to her biographer, John Campbell, it was her sleep routine that made her one of the best-informed people in the room. However, it’s interesting to note that Margaret Thatcher’s final demise was due to Alzheimer’s disease, which has been linked to sleep deprivation.
Donald Trump also claims that sleeping for just a few hours each night helps him stay ahead of his competitors. His statement, “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping for three or four?” has become quite famous and has drawn a lot of attention.
There are many who deprive themselves of sleep to spend more time working and who believe this is the key to getting ahead. Does giving up your sleep help you to become more successful and more productive? Let’s break it down and see if there’s any merit to that.
An important trait of any good leader is their ability to make the right decisions — a function of the rational-thinking part of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex. Sleep deprivation not only dampens this part of the brain, causing you to make poor decisions, but also deprives you of REM sleep, depriving you of emotional, cognitive and problem solving abilities — other important traits of good leaders.
Sleep deprivation is further known to affect your emotional rationality and behaviour, causing you to be more irritable, less inspiring, and less motivating. Research conducted by Christopher Barnes, professor at Foster School of Business, found evidence that
sleep-deprived leaders tend to be less charismatic, and sleep-deprived team members attribute less charisma to their leaders.
So what does this mean? Cutting down on sleep might give you more working hours, but those hours will definitely be less productive in terms of the quality of your work as well as your leadership.
Importance of sleep
Now that we’ve understood what sleep really is, how it changes through the night — and our lifespans — and the impact it can have on your life, let’s look at the flip side.
What does lack of sleep do to you?
We now know that depriving yourself of sleep can have a significant impact on your brain and body. What does that translate to? Physiologically, it affects your cardiovascular, metabolic, immune and reproductive systems — and even your physical appearance. Not to mention the impact on memory, learning, and other brain and emotional functions.
What a lack of sleep does to your brain
We’re all too familiar with that feeling of slowness, sluggishness and the sheer inability to concentrate after a poor night’s sleep. So it’s fair to say that sleep deprivation impacts both your cognitive as well as emotional abilities. Here are the many ways lack of sleep can impact you:
Ability to concentrate:
Researchers found that sleep deprivation makes it difficult for brain cells to communicate effectively, which, in turn, can affect memory and visual perception. In addition, the findings suggest that a lack of sleep can interfere with the ability of neurons in the brain to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought. For example, when a sleep-deprived driver sees a pedestrian stepping in front of his car, it may take longer for the driver to register what he or she is seeing and hit the brakes because “the very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s over-tired brain,” says Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Imagine that as a headline: Lack of sleep causes accident!
Poor control of one’s emotions:
You’d know from experience that sleep-deprived people always seem like they’re on the verge of an emotional outburst or, at the very least, they seem irritable and grumpy. In these situations, a tiny trigger could lead to an unexpected, over-the-top reaction.
The prefrontal cortex, as we’ve discussed before, is responsible for rational thinking and decision-making. Likewise, another part of the brain, known as the amygdala, is responsible for emotional reactions. Sleep deprivation causes the amygdala to become hyperactive, while at the same time reducing the control the prefrontal cortex has on the amygdala. With no one to keep watch, the amygdala now has free rein to act out, which is why a sleep-deprived person has little control over emotional reactions.
Both REM and NREM sleep play an important role in improving memory and learning. A lack of sleep simply means that the memories you form will be weaker and forgotten soon, and any new information you try to learn will simply bounce off your brain cells.
Links to psychiatric and neurological disorders:
Sleep deprivation is also linked to several psychiatric and neurological conditions, including depression, Alzheimer’s disease, suicide etc. In fact, most, if not all, major psychiatric conditions have abnormal sleep patterns and behaviour as one of their traits.
What a lack of sleep does to your body
Cardiovascular impact — heart attacks & strokes:
For a sleep-deprived person, their heart rate and blood pressure are higher than normal. In addition, the hormones your body needs to repair itself get turned off due to sleep-deprivation, which causes even more damage to your vasculature — ultimately leading to a heart attack.
Metabolic impact — weight gain, weight loss & diabetes:
The less you sleep the more you tend to eat. Doesn’t that seem logical? If you’re awake for longer, you want to eat more. But why so?
There are two hormones that control your appetite — leptin and ghrelin. The former tells you you’re full while the latter tells you you’re hungry. Leptin gets suppressed by lack of sleep and ghrelin goes up. What this means is that those who sleep less tend to eat 200–300 more calories per day.
Lack of sleep also increases the chances of obesity & diabetes. The less you sleep, the more you feel a lack of energy, and the less likely you are to have an active life or work out regularly. This is the perfect formula for the onset of obesity: eating more and burning less.
Even if you were to choose to go on a strict diet, a lack of sleep will make you lose most of your muscle weight as opposed to fat weight.
Reproductive impact — fertility & physical attractiveness:
In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker points to studies that show that men who sleep too little have a 29% lower sperm count than those getting a full night of quality sleep. Likewise, sleeping less than 6 hours routinely results in a 20% drop in follicular releasing hormones in women.
It’s also easy to believe that those who sleep less look more tired, less healthy and significantly less attractive compared to what they’d look like after getting a full eight hours of sleep. The term Beauty Sleep makes so much more sense now, doesn’t it?
Immunity — fighting infections & spreading cancer:
You must have noticed that you need to sleep more when you’re sick or that the medication you take induces drowsiness. That’s because sleep helps fight against infections and illnesses. In fact, the less sleep one gets, the higher the chances of contracting a virus or infection — almost 30% higher than those who sleep well.
Based on a study performed by Dr. Michael Irwin at UCLA, a single night of four hours of sleep can sweep away a whopping 70% of the killer cells responsible for killing any malignancy, compared to the number you’d have after a full eight hours of sleep. That’s a state of severe immunodeficiency that your body goes into after just a single night of too-little sleep. You can only imagine the effects that persistent sleep deprivation has.
Another study by Dr. David Gozal at UCLA shows that lack of sleep amplifies and aids the fast spread of cancer cells. Sleep deprivation not only diminishes immune cells responsible for fighting cancer but also increases the cells responsible for promoting its spread. That’s as compelling a reason as any to get enough shut-eye!
So let’s remind ourselves again of all the benefits of sleep
But how much sleep should you ideally get?
As we grow older, we need different amounts of sleep.
What can you do to catch up on lost sleep?
The blunt answer is NOTHING.
You might think that you can catch up for all the sleep you lost during the week by sleeping for a little longer over the weekend. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help. Your brain is incapable of making up for lost sleep. But what you can do is focus on improving sleep habits going forward.
So then, what can you do to improve your sleep?
1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Ensure you go to bed and wake up at about the same time every single day so you can set your biological clock
2. Meditate to relax the mind and body: Try the sleep meditation series, stress reduction, and sleep stories on the cure.fit app
3. Limit caffeine and alcohol use, particularly before bed: Try to avoid caffeine post 3 pm. Alcohol use causes more frequent awakenings at night and reduces REM sleep, which can keep you in the lighter stages of sleep through the night
4. Avoid screen time 30–45 minutes before bed and make sure to leave some time to relax before you sleep: Release of melatonin gets delayed by screen light. The internal Circadian clock is profoundly influenced by changes in light, since these are its main clues about what time it is. Exposure to even small amounts of light during the night can suppress melatonin secretion, and increase body temperature and wakefulness
5. Avoid staying in bed awake: Return to bed when you feel sleepy or try to relax yourself. The anxiety of not being able to fall asleep can keep you up for longer
6. Try to get 15–20 minutes of sunlight exposure early in the day: Getting sunlight helps regulate Circadian rhythm and, therefore, sleep patterns. So try waking up with the sun or get some sunlight as soon as you wake up
7. Avoid exercising very late in the evening: Try to finish your workout routine three hours before bedtime
8. Look into your emotional well-being and mental health needs: Sleep problems are often a sign of underlying stress or anxiety. Speak to a therapist if needed
9. Don’t go to sleep too hungry or too full: Large meals can cause indigestion and can keep you up. Drinking too much fluid before you sleep can wake you up and disturb your sleep if you need to urinate
10. Take a hot shower before you sleep: Hot showers cause vasodilation, making blood rush to the surface of your skin. So when you step out of the shower, all the heat exits your body causing a dip in body temperature, which leads to better sleep
11. Make sure your environment is appropriate for sleeping: Your bedroom should have dark blinds, no noise, no electronic gadgets, cool temperatures and should be free of things that can distract you while you try to fall asleep. A good quality mattress and pillow will also help
What does all of this mean for us?
We looked at the sleeping habits of the people we surveyed. Here’s what we found out:
- About 40% of those surveyed get less than 7 hours of sleep every night. No prizes for guessing that the largest contribution comes from those under the age of 25. 45% of the under-25 age group got less than 7 hours of sleep. In short, the younger generation is more sleep-deprived than the rest.
- More than 80% of the respondents sleep after 11 PM, where more than 50% of respondents under the age of 35 sleep only after midnight.
- Those who sleep less than 5 hours tend to sleep much later: ~60% will fall asleep only after 1 AM and only 4% will sleep before 11 PM. This pretty much reinforces the fact that the ‘night type’ is sleep-deprived due to early start times of workplaces and educational institutions.
In a nutshell, 40% of us are setting ourselves up for some serious health problems; particularly the younger generation.
Let’s reiterate then — without a full night’s sleep comprising both REM & NREM sleep, your body quite literally starts to die. The next time you say or even think to yourself, “Life’s short, why waste time sleeping?”, remember: you’re shortening your life further.
We are socially, emotionally, psychologically, physiologically, economically, behaviourally dependent on sleep.
So let’s go back to the question we started this exercise with: what is sleep? We think we now have a definition: