by Matthew Crocamo Jr.
You’re eyes are crackly. You can’t get enough to eat. Every counter-top and dashboard looks like a sweet sweet pillow. We all know how awful it is to fight through the physical and mental fatigue that drags you down all day after a 3-hour night of sleep.
A good night’s sleep is more important than diet and exercise to a long, healthy life. Sleep deprivation will age you faster than the President.
You might think you’re living life to the fullest when you burn the candle at both ends of midnight, but you’re more than likely just costing yourself years and years off the backend, when you could be retired and enjoying your grandchildren or finally catching up on Game of Thrones. In addition to shortening your lifespan, the quality of your day-to-day life suffers. There are common things we all do that will keep us from that good deep restorative sleep.
If you want to look 40 when you’re 40 instead of like Larry King or the Crypt Keeper, pay attention to the chemicals you ingest – especially later in the day – as well as some typical behaviors we tend to overlook.
The best way to motivate us might be to glance at the consequences of inadequate sleep.
What about bad sleep? I can’t remember; I’m tired.
Poor sleep increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure, along with many other health problems like severely impaired cognitive performance, increased sensitivity to pain, and depression. You might hallucinate. You might actually become more immature with a weary head, costing you dearly in social or professional situations.
You can’t really make up for that lost sleep either. In the short term, things like pain tolerance and cognitive functioning are impaired even after several days of adequate sleep that followed several nights of erratic sleep. No long term studies have been done on people; the rats, however, were not so fortunate.
Studies on sleep deprived rats have scary implications regarding our chronically under-slept populace (1 in 3 Americans gets less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night, according to the CDC.) Chronically sleep-deprived rats develop sores on their extremities and a lower body temperature. Their immune system is wrecked. If they are deprived of REM sleep, they die after 5 weeks. If they are kept from sleeping at all, it becomes 3 weeks. Normally, these mammals live for two to three years, but their bodies’ supplies never got a chance to replenish.
Sleep allows the body to breakdown and build proteins, which all of us animals need to grow the cells in our body. We need it to function and we need it to look pretty. “Beauty sleep” is real. We will physically deteriorate quicker with poor sleep.
“Sleep is a central component – not only to overall health and well-being – but to virtually every neurocognitive function,” explains Dr. Emerson Wickwire, director of the Insomnia Program at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Sleep has been referred to in the military as ammunition for your brain. So oftentimes, the same reasons why we are curtailing our sleep – needing to do more work and feeling more pressure to be more productive – missing that sleep actually undermines our ability to achieve our goals.“
It’s a simple thing to just go to bed on time, but that’s not always enough.
Get GOOD sleep, or live a nightmare
You might lay down and close your eyes and even lose consciousness 7 hours before you need to wake up. That doesn’t mean you’re getting what you need though.
There are five stages of sleep the body (probably) needs to operate at maximum capacity. The first two stages of sleep are lighter stages where we set ourselves up for deeper sleep. Stages 3 and 4 are the deeper stages. This is your body’s chance to restore itself. Muscle tissue gets a chance to grow and crucial growth hormones are released. Then REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep occurs.
During REM, our eyes dart back and forth while we dream. There are still lots of questions about REM sleep, but we do know it is when our most vivid dreaming occurs. Psychologists might say this is our chance to work out the loose ends in our complicated psyches. Physical things are definitely happening in our brains. During REM, neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, histamine, and norepinephrine are turned off; this is perhaps our chance for them to replenish or reset their receptors.
“Sleep is when neural networks are strengthened in the brain,” Wickwire says. We process billions of bits of information every day, “and it is actually during sleep when the irrelevant bits of information are discarded and the important parts of information are stored and solidified…important communication between centers of the brain doesn’t happen” without proper restorative sleep.
Instead of information going directly to where it needs to go, it gets dissipated across a wide mass of information. Our neural pathways need precision and range, like a sniper’s rifle. If you are sleep deprived, the information your brain needs to efficiently run your mind and body gets haphazardly blasted across your tired brain like a sawed-off shotgun. What’s worse? If these neural pathways are not exercised, they could deteriorate.
We really need that good sleep. There is a growing awareness that driving while sleep deprived is comparable to driving while intoxicated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes and 800 deaths in 2013, according to NPR. That number may now be even higher, since the NIHDS says the NHTSA (the same organization quoted by NPR) believes that driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1500 deaths each year.
Chemicals make you tired FOREVER
If you drink alcohol or caffeine too late in the day, take certain medications, or smoke cigarettes at all, you are likely missing out on much of the deep sleep your body craves. Everyone has a different tolerance level to the various recreational chemicals we consume. There is no hard-and-fast time to cut out the caffeine or booze if you want that deep sleep. If you’re hitting the bottle or coffee mug into the evening however, don’t count on replenishing your neural transmitters that night. Even if it’s just one beer, drinking every night could prevent you from ever getting into deep or REM sleep. You’ll look like Barack Obama in LESS than 8 years.
If you are chronically sleep deprived, you could go into those deeper stages of sleep much sooner into your first sleep cycle, but it’s a crappier, trying-to-catch-up kind of sleep that doesn’t give you the sufficient supplies you need to thrive.
Good luck stealing a full sleep cycle out of the night air if you smoke. Cigarettes are stimulants for one thing; they’ll jack you back up and keep your mind active. Also, if you do manage to get into a deep stage of sleep, the nicotine withdrawal will rouse you 3 to 4 hours in, whether you remember or not.
You might be avoiding these chemicals, but not all hurdles to a night of quality rest.
See the LIGHT! Now see less light
There are other things that can keep us up later than we want, light being the most common. Low lighting and strategically placed night lights throughout the house can help your body wind down for bedtime. Brighter lights will fool your body into thinking it’s time to go out and conquer the day, not rest up for the next one. There are specific kinds of light to avoid as well.
Avoid screens. The light beaming into your skull from the television, computer, tablet, or phone will keep you awake as well. Reading a book, magazine, or something else that’s actually made with real paper will help calm your mind without the waking glow of a device. You can also download a blue light filter for your phone; this is probably not as effective as avoiding the phone entirely, but better than consuming the frenzy of late-night television offerings.
Be cool, but not too cool
If we skip the chemicals and lights and get to the later stages of sleep, our bodies turn reptilian. In REM sleep, we can’t control our body temperature. If you’re bedroom (or wherever you’re sleeping) is too hot or cold, you might miss out on the good stuff.
Take a nap
“Sleep is so directly related to learning that actually napping can improve performance even more than additional studying or additional physical practice if we’re talking about learning physical skills.” (This is one last piece of insight from Dr. Wickwire; please listen to his entire NPR interview with Sheilah Kast [Produced by Maureen Harvie]. It’s excellent.)
Be careful which of your friends learn this good news. Tell them that too much sleep is not good. Some of them might already be curled up on the couch after the Wickwire quote, though.
Most of us, however, don’t have this oversleeping issue.
Work it out
There are some other things you could do to get better sleep. More physical activity during the day will help you catch those quality Z’s. Try to scale down the lighting in your home as you get closer to bedtime. This includes all those little power lights that stay on all night. Try to get them out of your bedroom if your machines can’t go unplugged.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm#dreaming
Harvard Medical School, Division of Sleep Medicine – http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/how/external-factors
National Sleep Foundation - https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep