Think You’re Getting Enough Sleep? Think Again…

Sleep & The Modern Misconceptions


It’s not like we don’t know about the importance of sleep. The eight-hour rule has been common knowledge for a long time, yet we still have a reluctance to really accept the negative consequences of ignoring the value of sleep. In fact, modernity has seen the rise of the uber successful business leader, inventor, politician or scientist, who brags about the amount of sleep they do not get as some sort of badge of honour. That in order for us common people to be in their echelon of success, we just have to follow a simple formula…don’t sleep.

Now, let’s be clear folks. This is terrible advice for most of us. The negative effects of not getting an adequate amount of sleep are not new to science and the health industry. Not only are the number of hours important, but so is the quality. However, it seems the ‘success quest’ has allowed us to consciously ignore these consequences. The question is – what are the actual long-term costs of evading sleep? The answers, my friends, are truly more chilling than you could imagine.

Sports commentator, and creator of one of the world’s most popular podcasts, Joe Rogan, recently sat down with Dr Matthew Walker, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, whose research focuses on the impact of sleep on human health and disease. Their conversation was one of the most terrifying pieces of audio I have ever listened to.

Sleep is important for both mind and body, but to put a little example of why getting a ‘genuine’ night of sleep is so important for our brains into context for you, Dr Walker talks about the different stages of sleep and the importance of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep:

“There’s a few different stages of sleep and they’re all important, but I’ll give you an example of why one of them is so important. REM (rapid eye movement or dream sleep) is part of our sleep cycle. Things like alcohol and some drugs, prevent us from entering into this stage of sleep. When an alcoholic stops drinking, because their brain has been deprived of REM sleep for so long, they will often experience something called delirium tremens. What happens is that because the alcohol has been blocking their dream sleep for so long, and the pressure for dream sleep has been built up by the brain, it actually spills over into wakefulness. It’s the brain basically saying, well if I’m not going to get this dream sleep while your asleep, I’m going to take it while your awake. You essentially start to dream while you’re awake. A collision of two states of consciousness if you will. Consider how necessary sleep must be if that’s the length the brain goes to in order to get that.”

“I mean, it took mother nature 3.6 million years to put this eight-hour sleep cycle in place for us, and only in the last 100 years have we’ve come along and decided to lop off at least 20% of that.”

Now what about some of the world’s most successful people who claim to operate on anywhere between 4 hours or less of sleep – examples of which include, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill and Elon Musk?

“That sleep machismo attitude has been around for a while, but I guess it comes down to – ok great you can do that, so long as you’re prepared to pay the costs of that. For example, we know that men who sleep five to six hours a night have the testosterone levels of a man 10 years their senior. Meaning a lack of sleep will age you by a decade going by that critical aspect of wellness, virility, muscle strength, sexual performance, etc,” says Dr Walker.

Now don’t get me wrong, all of that doesn’t sound all that horrid. I mean, I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who would forego a great deal more of their personal health to get Elon Musk’s kind of money. But…those are the short-term effects. The scary part people is when Rogan and Walker start discussing what happens in the long term to people who regularly experience that level of sleep…but we’ll get to that a bit later.

“So, we know now that the common misconception of sleep was that the brain powers down during sleep, which is quite the contrary. When we experience REM sleep, the brain can be as much as 30% more active than when we’re awake. Centres in the brain, such as memory, emotion, problem solving, they can all activate at the same time when we’re dreaming,” explains Dr Walker.

The interesting part comes next – what does this mean for how we learn, develop and get the most out of ourselves, whether it be at work or in something we’re passionate about? How does sleep really affect our levels of productivity? Dr Walker uses the term ‘non-conscious memory processing’ to examine this concept.

“An interesting question to ask is – what is the evolutionary function of dreaming? Why has mother nature created this state of sleep for us? That goes for all the stages of sleep, mother nature wouldn’t waste time putting us into these states if they didn’t have a purpose for our wellbeing and ability to perform at our best. Personally, I wouldn’t try play around with that and think you’re smarter than that process.”

“When we undertake an activity, whether it’s learning or problem solving, during sleep our brains replay that memory sequence, but at a speed 20 times faster than when we’re awake. What this essential means is that, when you sleep, it’s not a case of – you attempted something during your waking hours then you hit the pause and save buttons and go to sleep. To the contrary, when you sleep, you in fact sculpt out those memories and you improve them, increasing your performance at that thing when you wake up the next day. This brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘practise makes perfect’ because it should be – ‘practise makes perfect with a night of sleep’! A statistic that puts this into context is, after you sleep you are 20 to 30% better in performance at your skilled activity than when you finished practising it the day before. With that in mind, sleep is therefore the single greatest legal performance enhancing drug we know of.”

Dr Walker also describes how this statistic is evident physically when we don’t get at least 8 hours of sleep.

“If you’re getting six hours of sleep or less, your time to physical exhaustion drops by 30% as well. What that means is, you could prepare for a 10 round fight and be in perfect condition for it, but if you get six hours or less of sleep the night before, you’re going to fatigue quicker by about round seven. When we consider athletic performance, which is often measured in milliseconds, that’s a lot to give up.”

Now, let’s get to the scary part. The long-term effects of a bad sleep schedule. Walker uses some famous examples to help us understand what we’re sacrificing when we give up sleep to increase our chances of success or perceived productivity.

“Examples that immediately spring to mind for me are Margert Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who both boasted about getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. Yes, they were successful, but they also developed Alzheimer’s disease. We know now that a lack of sleep is directly related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

“We should not over value someone who under values sleep. They’re simply less productive and less healthy. On one night of 4 hours sleep, we have a 70% reduction in anti-cancer fighting immune cells. Just one night. Under slept employees will take on fewer work challenges or take on simpler tasks like listening to voice messages rather than delving into deep project work.”

To give us an example of how fragile and vulnerable our bodies are when it comes to sleep, Walker uses the global experiment of daylight savings to illustrate this vulnerability.

“In the spring when we lose an hour, there is a 24% increase in heart attacks across the 70 countries that use daylight savings. Conversely, in the autumn when we gain an hour, there is a 21% decrease in heart attacks across those countries.”

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hear a lot of arguments for those out there who advocate for less sleep. In fact, their position begs the question – ‘how much more successful and productive would you be if you got more sleep?’

For those of you wanting to get a better night’s sleep, Dr Walker offers a few basic tips that will immediately help with that:

  • Love the dark! Dim the lights in your house at night as early as possible to help release the sleep chemical melatonin. Evolutionarily, as soon as the sun went down, our brains would release this chemical to help prepare us to go to sleep. In most countries this happens around 6 – 7pm.
  • Sequentially that also means stay away from screens like iPads for a least an hour before you sleep. Studies have shown that one hour of iPad use can delay the release of melatonin by up to three hours. Rather read a book in dim lighting.
  • Cool yourself. Another evolutionary system put in place over millions of years is that our bodies react to the drop in temperature with the setting of the sun. Try to allow yourself to experience that before bed. Taking a warm shower or bath before bed will help drop your core temperature rapidly when you get out of that shower or bath. Tricking your body to releasing heat to cool yourself will also trick it into releasing melatonin.
  • Exercise and diet. Be active during the day. Your body will automatically want to use sleep to recover from that activity. Likewise, don’t have a cup of coffee or drinks containing an hour before bed. Foods rich in things like magnesium help muscles relax and repair, making for a more restful sleep.
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