First up on my chopping block when it comes to total optimization – is sleep.
I spend a third of my life doing it (or at least I should be), and the quality of that sleep directly impacts every other aspect of the remaining 66.6% of my life. Whether it’s my ability to make sound financial decisions, retain valuable information, improve my health and wellness, or just plain old be a pleasant person to be around rather than a sleep deprived grump (which has been known to happen on occasion), sleep impacts EVERYTHING.
So, needless to say, I want to make sure I am getting the best possible ROI on the hefty amount of time invested. Which is why it’s an absolute no brainer for sleep to be the starting point to an optimized life, financial and otherwise.
I’ve written about sleep before, but now I’m going to take a deeper dive into the topic. I’ll split it up into a two part series, because there’s a lot to cover. This week I’ll focus on the details behind why sleep is so important, and next week will be all about methods for improvement.
My obsession with sleep started about 8 years ago. Right around the time I realized I wasn’t getting enough of it. In a matter of months, I went from feeling like I was well above average when it came to health and fitness, to experiencing a downward spiral of issues. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
I was getting sick more often, having difficulty managing stress, and experiencing levels of fatigue which I had never encountered before. These had never been areas of issue for me, and frankly – it threw me for a loop. At first I thought I was burned out from work – which was a logical conclusion based on the number of hours and extended travel I had been doing for years. I was also working in one of the highest stress positions that I had found myself in during my career, and I concluded that it must be taking it’s toll.
After unsuccessfully trying to improve things on my own, I talked to my doctor about my concerns. He quickly reinforced that I needed to to reduce my stress and find a better work/life balance. It made sense, but even after slowing down and taking a few much needed breaks, things weren’t getting any better. In fact – they were getting worse.
I spent the next several years seeing doctor after doctor, trying to pinpoint what was going on. Each one had a series of treatments for the barrage of symptoms, ranging from stimulants to make me feel more awake, sleeping aids to help me get more rest, botox injections into my jaw muscles to stop me from grinding me teeth (bruxism), laser therapy and steroid injections to help muscle tension and headaches, I even saw a surgeon for possible jaw surgery in the event the bruxism was the primary contributor to my interrupted sleep. All options had their fair share of unpleasant side effects, and most had, at best, questionable efficacy.
I tried some things, skipped the really crazy stuff, and the whole time it felt like I was playing whack-a-mole with my symptoms. Trying to stem the flow of the downward spiral, while everyone seemed to ignore what I was most interested in. What was causing all of this? Where did it all trace back to?
I ended up doing a ton of research myself, and what I finally concluded in the end, was that nearly every single symptom I was experiencing could be traced back to a poor depth and duration of sleep. Then the question became, why was my sleep so poor and how could I fix it?
These questions led me down a rabbit hole. An incredibly informative, revealing, and downright shocking rabbit hole.
Only now, 8 years later, do I actually feel like I have a solid understanding of my sleep, where things were going wrong, and a tool chest of methods to combat those issues. For every step I have taken in effectively enhancing my sleep quality (and continue to take everyday), I witnessed myriad symptoms disappear from my life. Without any need for stimulants, sleep aids, injections or surgery. My sleep is nowhere near perfect – but it’s sure a vast improvement from where I was at.
But for today I want to focus on what I learned in that rabbit hole. What I found particularly compelling, and what motivated me to invest considerable time (and money) into improving my overall sleep. What made me view it as a priority, rather than an inconvenient interruption to productivity.
Today’s post will be my best effort at convincing you why you should prioritize your sleep as an instrumental investment in your financial freedom and overall happiness, one that I argue will be an investment from which you get the highest ROI of any investment you will EVER make.
Not to mention – why you shouldn’t just shrug it off as something you’ll do when the kids are older, when work slows down, or worst of all the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality.
So let’s get right into then.
WHY DO WE SLEEP???
The short answer to this, as highlighted in neuroscientist, Dr. Matthew Walker’s book titled “Why We Sleep” is that we are quite simply asking the wrong question. The right question to ask is why wouldn’t we sleep? Sleep literally influences the ability of every single physiological and cognitive system in our body to perform in its intended manner.
Optimal sleep creates a cascade of benefits on ALL of those systems, inadequate sleep creates a torrent of deleterious effects.
In studies conducted in the 80’s with rats, total sleep deprivation killed them in about 10 days.
Reduce sleep in humans, even by something as seemingly marginal as 5-10%, and the cumulative damage to our body overtime can result in a shortened life span, a dramatic increase of our risk of developing myriad diseases, (including the big three of dementia, cardiovascular disease and cancer), decreased energy and cognitive ability, increased incidence of anxiety and depression, and a long, long, looonnnnnnggggg list of other undesirable effects.
SO WHAT DOES PROPER SLEEP LOOK LIKE???
Proper sleep should consist of an average of 8 hours nightly, coming in cycles of roughly 90 minutes. During each of those 90 minute periods, we can expect our body to cycle through a total of 4 stages, followed by REM sleep. We start in the lighter stages of sleep,(Stage 1, into Stage 2), then transition into the more regenerative deeper stages of sleep (Stages 3, and lastly Stage 4).
These deep stages of sleep are where some pretty important things take place. Our body restores damage, consolidates memories, releases vital hormones, detoxifies our brains…..the list goes on.
Towards the end of our sleep cycle, our body comes back into Stage 2, and from there will enter into our REM, or rapid eye movement sleep (often know as our dream stage of sleep).
What most people don’t realize is, there is no shortcutting into your deep sleep, or your REM (unless you have narcolepsy, are incredibly sleep deprived, or a hardcore alcoholic.) But in the absence of these medical conditions that can allow a small percentage of people to slip into REM straight from wakefulness, the rest of us have to go through these stages consecutively. Meaning, if you reach Stage 3 and are then awoken, or even just slightly roused into a lighter stage of sleep, you start the cycle all over again. For people with sleep disorders that rouse them repeatedly through the night (think sleep apnea), this means your percentage of time spent in Stage 3/4 deep sleep, or even REM, are dramatically reduced, and in some cases non-existent.
This is one of my key problems. While my sleep apnea disorder is largely treated with an oral appliance, my most recent overnight polysomongram, (an overnight study in a sleep lab which measures almost every single thing your brain and body does while sleeping), shows that I am averaging a mere 4% of deep sleep, when I should be getting 13-23%. Not ideal.
Even if you think you sleep for 8 hours, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting sufficient depth of sleep. And the difference really matters.
When we don’t get sufficient time in Stage 4 sleep, amongst many other things, our brains are unable to perform the action of storing information we learn during the day. Disabling us from essentially being able to transfer the information from the short term storage locations within our brain, to our long term memories.
Even more important is that the ratio of time spent in each sleep stage within your 90 minute sleep cycle varies over the course of the night. For the first half, you are spending much more of your 90 minute cycle in your deep stages of sleep than you are transitioning to REM sleep. Whereas in the back-half of the night, a much greater percentage of your sleep cycle is spent alternating between Stage 2 and REM.
So let’s say you sleep for an average of 6 hours each night, that doesn’t mean you are just incurring a 25% sleep deficit overall, instead, it can actually mean that you are missing out on as much as 70% of your total REM sleep.
What’s so important about REM sleep? Turns out, we need sleep not only AFTER learning to transfer our short term memories into a more long term holding state in the form of Stage 4 deep sleep, but we also require REM sleep BEFORE learning, in order to prepare our brains to be receptive to new information. Miss out on your REM sleep, and your ability to retain new information is going to plummet. (Think teenagers and kids who miss out on substantial chunks of the back end of their sleep in order to wake up and go to school, to then be expected to learn, even though we took away their optimal time for REM sleep.)
DISEASES AND SLEEP
There is now substantial evidence in the scientific community demonstrating a CAUSAL link between decreased sleep and Alzheimers. There has been concern for quite some time about the presence of a protein within the brain know as beta-amyloid proteins. So much so that it is considered a hallmark for Alzheimers disease.
But as with most things in the body, balance is key, and further research has suggested that beta-amyloid in proper quantities can act as a defence mechanism in our brains. It’s only when beta-amyloid levels increase disproportionately that it appears this correlation between Alzeheimers and the protein exist.
So what causes that protein to increase in production? As it turns out, it’s actually not an increase in production that is the issue, but a decrease in clearance.
When we sleep, and specifically when we enter into deep Stage 4 sleep, it allows for the waste system of our brain, known as our Glymphatic System, to essentially flush out toxins from our brain. Specifically, the glial cells within the Glymphatic system decrease in size – by 200%!!! That’s a massive decrease, and they do so to facilitate our cerebral spinal fluid flowing around our brain in what amounts to a nightly power wash of debris. This process prevents a build-up of beta-amyloid within our brain.
Reduce your stage 4 sleep – and you increase the build-up of beta-amyloid in your brain.
In fact, Dr. Walker has openly said that based on the totality of scientific evidence currently available, insufficient sleep is the #1 causal lifestyle factor when it comes to Alzheimers disease.
And that’s not the only disease which sleep is directly linked to.
When it comes to cardiovascular disease, here’s an interesting stat. Twice per year, 1.6 billion people voluntarily participate in a phenomenal study. We commonly know it as daylight savings time. Each year, when the clock’s spring forward an hour and we all effectively lose just a single hour of sleep, there is a 24% increased risk of heart attacks the following day. Flip it to the fall, when we all have an opportunity to gain an hour of sleep, and that same risk is reduced by 21%.
(Interestingly enough, the same increase/reduction pattern created by daylight savings applies to car accidents, suicidal attempts and completions, as well as the harshness/leniency of sentences handed out by judges on the Monday following the time shift!! What!?!)
Not only that, but the impacts of the lost/gained hour doesn’t just stop in the 24 hours after the time shift. It has a blast radius effect that ripples through the 3 days following, finally coming back into average means only on the 4th day.
And that’s all just from losing or conversely gaining the opportunity for a single hour of sleep.
Another study followed healthy adults with no signs of cardiovascular disease (meaning no calcification of the main coronary artery), for a period of 5 years. People who got an average of 5 hours of sleep or less, had a 200-300% increased risk of calcification of the coronary artery.
And what about the other biggest killer, Cancer? Does sleep impact our risk factor for that too?
There are now massive causal links between insufficient sleep and colon, bowel and breast cancer. In fact, poor sleep impacts the risk of developing cancer so much, that the World Health Organization has classified any type of night time shift work (which completely screws with your bodies natural rythyms and sleep cycles) as a carcinogen. Yes – you read that correctly – a carcinogen.
Our body’s immune system also has a pretty elite defence squad known as killer cells. These killer cells float around our body making sure all the other cells are towing the company line. Essentially their job is to target foreign or malignant cells (read cancer) and kill the crap out of them.
But a study conducted at the University of California took a group of healthy adults who were then restricted to 4 hours of sleep for just one night. The following day their killer cell activity was measured and found to have diminished by over 70%.
That’s just ONE NIGHT!
And we haven’t even gotten into how getting just 6 hours of sleep per night can effectively cause your body to mimic the effects of the early stages of Adult onset diabetes, cutting your insulin efficiency by 50%.
DIET, EXERCISE AND SLEEP
As if all that isn’t bad enough, there’s more. Another downside to inefficient sleep is that if you are investing time and energy into weight loss, healthy eating, or training, you may actually be harming your body rather than helping it.
Because studies show that when you are under slept and engaging in a weight loss diet or exercise, 70% of the weight you lose will come directly from lean muscle mass rather than fat. Your body goes into a fat retention mode, and you end up losing exactly what you are trying to retain, and keeping what you are trying to lose.
Lack of sleep also wreaks havoc on the production of the hormones that control your hunger levels. Specifically decreasing the hormone leptin, which tells your body you are satisfied, and increasing the hormone ghrelin, which tells your body you’re hungry.
Add to that the fact that a sleep deprived body prefers simple/quick processing carbs (think high sugar/processed foods) to more long-term satiating and nutrient rich foods, and it’s no wonder that people who are getting less than their 8 hours of sleep will eat, on average, 300 more calories per day. That may seem small, but over the course of several years or decades, that amounts to some pretty substantial weight gain.
And what about your genetic make-up? Do genetically modified foods make you wary? Do you wonder what exactly you’re consuming? Do you choose to pay more for non-GMO foods? What about the recent efforts of some in the scientific community to modify the genes of human fetuses? Does it make you wonder what type of ripple effects that might have down the line?
Well, get ready, because if you aren’t sleeping properly, you are already conducting a gene modification experiment on your own body. After a moderate restriction of sleep over just ONE WEEK, 711 of your 20 something thousand genes, (amounting to 3% of your genetic make-up) are modified in some capacity. And not in ways that are helpful. A recent study demonstrated that some of your genes are down-regulated, being those associated to your metabolism, immune system, and your ability to repair DNA damage, while the genes associated to inflammatory responses, and stress responses are up regulated. Further increasing your chances of cancer.
The amount of people finding themselves having to go through IVF and various fertility treatments in order to have children has gone through the roof over the past few decades. Not only does this take a massive emotional toll on a couple, it also comes at a substantial financial cost.
Is it any surprise then that sleep has a direct impact on our ability to produce the hormones necessary for successful reproduction?
Men who get less than 7 hours of sleep will age by 10 year in terms of their levels of testosterone, have dramatically fewer sperm and a substantial increase in deformities of their sperm. Conversely women who are sleeping for only 5-6 hours per night will encounter a 20% reduction in a hormone known as FSH, which is a critical hormone in the pathway to becoming pregnant.
THE COLD HARD TRUTH
I know there’s always a million and one reasons why sleep gets pushed to the back burner. I did it myself for many years. But the reality is, we now have the cold hard scientific evidence to prove that it is irresponsible to continue to ignore the potential health risks of failing to get sufficient sleep.
The evidence is so strong that experts in the field predict that studies measuring the negative effects of sleep restriction will themselves be heavily restricted due to ethical implications now that the medical community is so acutely aware of the deleterious short and long term effects of sleep restriction on our health.
And if all those facts aren’t enough to push you to take immediate action to invest in your own sleep, here’s some fast facts that might give you pause to, at the very least, make sure your kids get the sleep they need.
- Every single negative effect created by a lack of sleep in adults, is magnified in our children. With growing brains and bodies, their need for sleep is substantially higher than ours, and failure to obtain the required sleep wreaks havoc on every component of their development.
- Insufficient sleep and sleep fragmentation is a leading cause in teen suicidal ideation, attempts AND completion.
- In recent studies, 89% of teenagers are getting insufficient sleep, while 70% of parents believe that their teens are getting sufficient sleep. Clearly there is a disconnect here.
- In recent survey’s, 80% of teens are waking up at least once per night to check online social media, exposing themselves to melatonin reducing blue light that interferes in the quality and depth of their sleep. If that’s not a good reason to keep devices out of the bedroom, I don’t know what is.
- When kids get enough sleep, their ability to learn and retain information in school increases by 70%;
- 3 year olds who sleep 10 hours per night versus the recommended 12-13, are 50% more likely to develop childhood obesity.
- Lack of sleep in infants/children greatly reduces their overall REM sleep, which inhibits their ability to interpret facial expressions and learn appropriate social interaction, effectively mimicking the hallmark symptoms of autism.
Our kids need their sleep – desperately. And so do we.
If someone told you that you could extend your life span by 5-10 years, drastically reduce your risk of Alzheimers, Cardiovascular Diseases, Cancer, do the same for your kids AND improve their learning abilities and retention by 70%, AND decrease their chances of teen suicide, child obesity and poor social functioning, just by making sure you all get sufficient sleep, would you not consider that the best ROI on any investment you could ever make?
I do. And next week I’ll talk about the many different techniques I’ve tried in order to improve my sleep, highlighting those that I have found to be truly effective.
If you still aren’t convinced and want to look into this a little further, or if you are interested in this stuff as much as I am and just want to geek out on the topic, I’ve included a list of links to some of the top resources I’ve found when it comes to sleep.
If you are only going to look into one of these resources though, I HIGHLY recommend that you read Dr. Matt Walker’s book Why We Sleep. I have read dozens of books on sleep (there are thousands out there), but this is the absolute best one I have come across.
Many of these links will lead you to content by Dr. Matthew Walker, frankly I also believe he is one of the leading experts in this field, not to mention he presents his knowledge in an incredibly approachable, yet detailed manner. So if you can’t squeeze in the time to read his book, you can check out his podcast interviews or Ted talk, all of which will probably entice you to get his book anyway.
I’ve also included some of my favourite books for addressing infant/childhood sleep. These books are excellent resources on how to establish strong sleep habits in your children right from infancy. Helping both the child (and the parents) get the sleep they need.
The Drive by Dr. Peter Attia:
- Interview of Dr. Matthew Walker Part 1 on dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimers disease, and mental health (1 hour 43 mins)
- Interview of Dr. Matthew Walker Part 2 on heart disease, cancer, sexual function and sleep disorders (2 hours 4 mins)
- Interview of Dr. Matthew Walker Part 3 on dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimers disease, and mental health (2 hour 1 mins)
Found My Fitness by Dr. Rhonda Patrick:
- Interview of Dr. Matthew Walker on sleep for enhancing learning, immunity, and the glymphatic system (2 hours 48 mins)
- Interview of Dr. Dale Bredesen on preventing and reversing Alzheimers disease (1 hour 15 mins)
Ted Talk – Why Sleep Is Your Superpower (19 mins)- Dr. Matt Walker
Youtube – 2019 Cognitive Neuroscience Society Keynote Speech “Why Sleep” (1 hour 4 mins) – Dr. Matt Walker
Why We Sleep by Dr. Matt Walker
The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox by Dr. Mark Burhenne
The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It by Dr. Chris Winter
Secrets of the Baby Whisperer (Child Sleep), by Tracy Hogg
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth
I needed to read this as I have not found a way to get a solid 8 hours of sleep regularly. I feel like I sleep much better when I get somewhere between 6 and 7 hours. When I try for 8 I end up waking up several times throughout the night. There is some really good points about trying to get more sleep so I’ll see if I can figure it out. 🙂
It is entirely possible that you happen to be one of those people who’s body operates really well off of 7 hours per night (in which case I wouldn’t worry too much about making major changes, so long as you are feeling refreshed and well rested on that amount). Anything less than 7 though and the studies definitely indicate that the negative health effects really start to compound.
Next week I’ll go over all the things that worked best, so maybe you will find some helpful ideas on places to start 🙂
Thanks for reading!!
This is such a thorough, well-written, and helpful article Phia! It’s clear that you know this topic inside-out.
I’m in complete alignment with you about the importance of sleep. I also came to a pretty bad place in my life before I took my sleep seriously—and it’s done wonders.
If there was a magic bullet to cure a big bunch of life’s chronic ills, getting more sleep would be it!
Once I made sleep a priority, I began to realize so many benefits. I had more energy, better focus, less cravings, easier weight management—all the things that you mention in your article!
This article is fantastic and a definite keeper!
Thanks so much Chrissy – I definitely feel strongly about this topic 🙂
I agree that is absolutely amazing what proper sleep can do to correct so many issues. It also blew my mind how quickly we can forget what a good nights sleep feels like, and how easily a crappy sleep can just become our “norm”.
I find it’s essential for me to always be working on some component of my sleep habits, in order to keep it a front and centre priority.
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