Why Is Sleep So Important
One of the most important things I deal with in my practice is sleep. Sleep is defined as “a naturally recurring state of mind and body characterized by altered consciousness, relatively inhibited sensory activity, reduced muscle activity, inhibition of nearly all voluntary muscles, and lacking interactions with surroundings.” All animals need to sleep. Evolutionarily, in order to survive and successfully pass on genetics to another generation, sleep is a necessity. Humans are animals in this regard; we’re no different, as we require sleep to live too. And while it is a naturally occuring state, for some people, getting sleep is an absolute battle, fought tooth and nail every night.
Just some fun facts about how a few animals sleep… Can you imagine sleeping for as little as 30 minutes a day? How about for only five minutes at a time? Our giraffe friends can, because that’s exactly what they do. For a large animal in the middle of the open savanna, it’s risky to sleep because of predators. They must remain vigilant, so they nap in short intervals, usually standing up so that they are always ready to run. Dolphins and some of their marine mammal cousins are also unusual in that, unlike us, they must consciously think to breathe, even when they’re sleeping. They also have to be on guard 24/7 for predators or other potential dangers. So how do they do this? Well, they shut down only half of their brain at a time while sleeping. This is called unihemispheric sleep. This prevents them from drowning, while at the same time, allowing them to literally sleep with one eye open and remain on the lookout for potential danger or predators. Great Frigatebirds can stay in flight for months at a time, with their feet never touching ground. This is an impressive feat, but even more so when you think about how they sleep: in 7–12 second bursts. They spend approximately a total of 40 minutes sleeping like this per day while also flying. But when they are on land, they do sleep considerably more.
We humans can’t shut down half of our brains and we can’t fly or sleep underwater, which is a bummer. But really, how important is sleep for humans? Very! Rats are used in research because they accurately portray human systems, and there have been many sleep studies with them. One study showed that rats deprived of sleep for two weeks die. There is even an illness in humans called fatal familial insomnia, where if the people that have it do not sleep, they will eventually die from the cumulative lack of sleep. So let’s talk sleep. Sleep is basically the price we pay for the privilege of being awake, and there’s no way around it. So we have to pay the piper, but what’s the price? How much sleep do we need? The answer is that the vast majority of people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. But, there is an exception. Five percent of the population has a genetic mutation where they only need five hours of sleep per night. Lucky ducks! Fun fact: in the past 50 years, the amount of sleep the average American gets has dropped by about an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half each night. That’s actually a lot, and there are consequences in our modern lifestyle. Also, you can’t bank sleep. You can’t say, ‘I slept an extra four hours over the weekend, so I can lose at least four hours of sleep tonight in order to get my big project done at work.” or “I won’t sleep much this week so I can study for a test, but I’ll make up the sleep this weekend.” Nope. It doesn’t work like that. More often than not, you really need to be on a regular sleep schedule, getting about the same number of hours each night. I treat sleep issues more than anything else in my practice. Hands down, every patient who comes in has a problem with sleep. With some people, I can do behavioral management; with others, I use meds or natural supplements. I’ll get to that later. When I’m lecturing, I always get questions about how one spouse gets up early and the other late and is that normal, etc. Yes, that is totally normal. There are certain genetic types, called chronotypes. There are larks, people who get up early, but then go to bed early. And there are night owls, who go to bed very late, and then wake up very late. Your genetic makeup determines what your chronotype is, whether you are a lark or a night owl, it’s perfectly healthy to be either. It doesn’t matter when you sleep, what matters is that you sleep. Ideally seven to nine hours a night. Adolescents sleep more, up to 12 or 14 hours per night, and newborns sleep for 16 or 17 hours each day, mainly because these are growth stages, and that tires the body. But by the time you reach adulthood, age 20 or so, you need that seven to nine hours. It is a myth that older people need less sleep. In reality, they need just as much sleep. The reasons they don’t sleep well can be because they are in pain, have bladder problems and need to use the bathroom, or all the medicines they are on disrupt the sleep architecture. A lot of neurostimulants, diuretics, and other drugs that make them drowsy during the day make it so they do not sleep well at night. It can be a really frustrating mess that’s difficult to untangle.
I want to talk about the reasons why we need sleep. Like many things in life, the reasons why are essentially based on the consequences of not getting it.
The brain makes up just two to three percent of our body mass, but it consumes 25% of the body’s energy. It’s like a car that’s running really fast; as the car burns gas, it makes fumes. Similarly, when the brain is burning calories, it creates waste. That waste is cleaned out when we sleep, and is why most people need 7 to 9 hours per night. Now, some people think they can avoid sleep and just drink coffee or energy drinks, but that’s wrong. One of the byproducts of our brain using all the energy it does is the production of a waste product called adenosine; and it takes sleep to get rid of it. Caffeine blocks the body’s sensors that this toxin is building up, not unlike having a car running in your house. If you ran your car in your garage or house, carbon monoxide would build up and eventually you would die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Caffeine blocks the body’s ability to determine how much adenosine is in it, so the body is tricked into thinking all is well, no need to rest. If it goes on too long, there are consequences to pay, and you eventually collapse.
A story on this topic that I find interesting is one about Randy Gardner, who holds the world record for sleep deprivation. There is some dispute about that, another dude named Tony Wright claims the record is his, but whatever. Anyway, Randy was a high school student in the 50’s and he had a science fair project to do. After much thought, he decided to study sleep deprivation. Randy decides he wants to prove all of his teachers wrong by showing them that people don’t really need sleep. He was normally a pretty affable guy, but right about day two, he started getting moody. Then he started having major problems concentrating at about third or fourth day. On day five, they tell him to start at 100 and to keep subtracting seven. He said “okay, 100 minus 7 is 93, minus 7 is 86, minus 7 is 79, minus 7 is…is…72, minus 7…no, minus 9 is 79, minus 7…wait…what am I adding? I mean…subtracting?” He was totally lost after just three subtractions. When they asked why he stopped, he couldn’t even tell them what he had been doing. And he was not a dumb kid, he was actually a straight A student. It was clear that missing four nights of sleep was clouding his mind to the point that he couldn’t remember simple directions. His inability to concentrate and his short-term memory loss was due to the fact that his brain and body were severely sleep deprived. But he still carried on with the experiment. Then something bizarre started happening around day six and seven. He started checking the windows in his house, making sure they were locked. Then he started looking for people watching him. He was sure that his friends were conspiring against him, and was constantly checking around corners, pulling down shades, and drawing the curtains on the windows in his house. If his mom opened them, he would freak out and hide in his room. Then he started saying that not only were they watching him, they were plotting against him. These people he was referring to were his best friends, but he was sure they had an evil agenda to get him. He still refused to stop his experiment, but his mother convinced him to see his doctor. It backfired: the doctor wanted to give him a B-12 injection, but when the syringe came out, Randy ran out of the room, convinced that the doctor was trying to poison him. He was going downhill very fast. On the eighth day, he started hallucinating, seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. Then he started having problems with pronunciation of simple words; a straight A student couldn’t pronounce everyday words. All because he had not slept, he had not allowed the brain and body to rest, to rid themselves of toxins. Then he stopped recognizing everyday objects. They would put a fork in his hand, and he couldn’t say what it was or what it was used for. By this time, he was like a zombie, walking dead. By the ninth and tenth day, he lost his sense of smell, and then his vision became progressively more blurry. By the eleventh day, he collapsed. He was emotionally, mentally, and physically done. His brain had given out first, then he started to lose normal bodily function, until his body finally gave up. He went 11 days without sleep. That’s 264 hours. 15,840 minutes. They didn’t say how long he finally slept. I suspect he was actually just unconscious at first. And they didn’t say what he got for a grade on his science fair project. I’d like to think it was an A, since the kid basically risked his life for the stupid thing. He went from a smart, gregarious kid to a babbling idiot in eleven days flat.
Lots of bad things happen when people don’t get enough sleep. In sleep deprived adolescents, the suicide rate goes up dramatically. In all ages, but more so in adolescents, the risk of car accidents also goes up considerably. There is also an increased tendency for moral lapses in people who do not get enough sleep; they do things that are typically out of character for them, like rob people or cheat on their spouses. Sleep deprivation also leads to learning problems, regardless of age; studies have shown that the capacity to learn is reduced by 40% when people are sleep deprived. That’s huge! It also causes an inability to recognize facial expressions. You may ask why that’s a big deal. Well, if you can’t tell that you’ve pissed off the big thug on the subway, you might continue to unwittingly irritate him and get yourself beat up… or worse. Reaction times are greatly affected by sleep deprivation; they’re slowed severely. That’s why car accidents increase. But researchers have thoroughly studied sleep and reaction times in sports. Many studies on sleep deprivation come from basketball players. Their accuracy and their performance metrics all go down relative to the hours of sleep missed. Hockey players’ reaction times, after just one night of missed sleep, were off by 30%. A goalie’s reaction time down by 30% is dramatic when it translates to the other team scoring on him 30% more often.
It’s all about getting that seven to nine hours. There are lots of physiological consequences of sleep deprivation. Blood pressure goes up, the risk of heart attack goes up, the risk of stroke goes up, you become obese, and often diabetic as a result. There’s actually a mechanism for it that I’ll explain in a moment. A host of psychiatric and mental illnesses can result from lack of sleep, and studies have shown that people who are chronically sleep deprived die much younger.
Now, let’s talk about your endocrine system. The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things. So, it pretty much controls like… everything. In young males, sleep deprivation makes the testosterone levels drop. The ability to produce testosterone is decreased in men who sleep less than six hours a night. What does that mean? Only that their testicles get smaller, they can have erectile dysfunction, and reduced sex drive. In adolescents, it can hamper the development of the bones and muscles, the deepening of the voice, and hair growth; all the stuff that helps boys start to look, sound, and act like men. It has an analagous affect on women, in that fertility goes down and estrogen levels decrease with chronic sleep deprivation. But in a cruel and ironic twist, a decrease in estrogen has been shown to cause insomnia and less productive sleep, or just very poor sleep. So for women, it’s often a vicious cycle.
What else happens to your hormonal system when you do not sleep? I’m sure you can correlate a lot of this stuff with your real life experiences. When you can’t or don’t sleep, do you notice you crave junk food? It’s 3am and you’re standing in the kitchen, scarfing down cold pizza? Or some other high fat or high sugar thing…a big bowl of cereal or ice cream or a doughnut, or three? Or a cinnabun? I love those and I must have one every time I’m at the airport, those are good. Anyway, that’s a distraction- I didn’t mean to bring that up. Remember earlier when I said that I’d explain why obesity is so much more common in people who are sleep deprived? Here we are. So what happens to you’re endocrine system when you don’t sleep? For one thing, you secrete a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is a gnarly beast of a hormone, high on the list of the most hated hormones ever in the history of hormones. It even sounds like the name of a goblin, right? And not a nice goblin. A bad, mean, evil goblin. Ghrelin the gnarly goblin. Why the shade? Ghrelin is the hormone that makes you hungry…and hangry. So here you are, middle of the night, can’t sleep. And all of a sudden you’re starving! Why? Because not sleeping has triggered the release of a crap load of ghrelin, and it’s coursing through your body, making you crave sugary, fatty foods… whatever doesn’t run away when you reach for it is fair game. Ain’t that a bi-otch? But that’s not the worst of it. Ghrelin the goblin has a goody goody cousin named leptin. Leptin is the hormone that makes you feel full. He’s nowhere to be found when the gnarly goblin ghrelin is out on the prowl. So not only are you starving courtesy of ghrelin, but goody goody leptin is home studying, so you won’t be seeing him or feeling full anytime soon. So before you know it, you’ve eaten all the leftover pizza, a bowl of cereal, and a giant bowl of cookies & cream topped with more cookies and whipped cream! And you’re still eyeing the rest of that baked chicken in the fridge. But wait! The hormonal chemical conspiracy isn’t over friends. Without leptin to make you feel full, ghrelin the goblin has made you eat everything that’s not nailed down, but somebody else is coming to join the party…cortisol. Dahn dun duuuuuhhhnnn! Cortisol is the stress hormone, and he gets produced at higher levels when you don’t sleep. When he gets to the party, he pushes insulin around (they have a terrible history; don’t even ask) so insulin feels emasculated, so his levels go down. Why should you care about insulin levels? Well, remember all the carbs and sugar that ghrelin made you gorge on? Insulin is what helps your body break all that down. But since cortisol came to the party, pushing insulin around, all those sugars have nothing to do. What does that sound like? Begins with a “d”? Diabetes! Obvi you don’t become diabetic from one 3am rendezvous with the Frigidaire, but it sets up a diabetes-like condition that leaves those sugars all dressed up with nowhere to go. If that happens chronically, you can end up with diabetes. So what happens to these loose sugars at 3am? They go to fat. It’s squishy and warm there, a great place to land. It’s a whole cascade, a hormonal conspiracy to make you fat and…and…ugly! For real?! How does that happen? The cascade continues! Growth hormone doesn’t get along with cortisol either, so when cortisol shows up, growth hormone is outta there. When growth hormone leaves the party, that’s really a bummer, because he’s what basically restores the body, especially parts of it that are very important to a certain industry…the beauty industry. You now know that not sleeping can make you fat, but how can it make you ugly? Well, check back next week and I’ll tell you!
In the meantime, hop on my website dragresti.com and read some other blogs and like and comment on them, and check out my videos and subscribe to my YouTube channel. If you want more great stories that’ll make you sound really smart at your next cocktail party, check out my book, Tales from the Couch available on Amazon.com.
And people, for better or worse, it seems like the world is re-opening once again, so just please make wise choices. Maintain a little distance, don’t rush out to bars and dance floors to make up for lost time, and if you’re sick, stay home for God’s sake! And bosses, remember the lessons that corona taught us: let your people stay home if they’re sick; don’t make them choose between their health and their livelihood. I’ll now step down off my soapbox. Have a great week!