One of the things I used to hear a lot of is: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” We live in a culture that seems to glorify stress, over-work and exhaustion. They have become social markers of how important we are: the busier we are the better! The less we sleep, the more important we are, the tougher we are-it’s a perverse badge of honor in some professional circles.
The truth of the matter is that our lack of sleep and rest is making us sicker, not healthier and certainly not fitter. We acknowledge there are some risks to sleep deprivation: drowsy driving, poor concentration, irritability and general physical exhaustion, but the true cost of sleep deprivation is far deeper than just those symptoms.
Our natural sleep-wake cycle is called our circadian rhythms. It’s why the hamster you had as a kid slept all day and ran in his squeaky wheel all night. Hamsters are nocturnal; humans are naturally diurnal, which means we are hard-wired to be awake all day while the hamster is snoozing in sawdust.
If you watch nature shows, you can see the differences in animals who are predators and those who are their prey. They are physically different: most prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads to watch for predators, while the predators have what’s called binocular vision, meaning eyes in the front of their head, like lions, wolves and us humans. Most nocturnal animals have large eyes to gather the little light available at night, while diurnal animals have smaller eyes as daylight is usually pretty plentiful. Being nocturnal and being a predator are not mutually exclusive: owls are nocturnal predators; cats are also nocturnal predators; humans are diurnal predators. We have evolved to hunt during the daytime while your house cat has evolved to hunt at night, since their prey (usually your hamster and his relatives) are active at night.
This is why people who work at night have difficulty sleeping during the day and trouble staying awake at night. It’s one of the reasons night shift workers usually get a higher pay differential, because they are fighting the natural rhythm of their bodies to do their jobs. It usually puts a harder stress on them and can sometimes take a physical toll in mental fuzziness, physical tiredness and other health problems. It’s why night jobs usually have a high turnover rate: no one wants to work at night.
Humans are hard wired to wake up once the sun is up and to get less active and sleepier as the sunlight wanes. But this cycle evolved when the only light available was sunlight and firelight, and obviously we have a lot more light sources now. We have way more artificial light than natural light in our lives today and this artificial light affects us in more ways than just our circadian rhythms, but for right now, I’m just talking about the sleep-wake cycle. We use this artificial light to fool ourselves into staying up way after the sun has gone down. This is not a good thing. We have gotten away from our natural cycles and this has a detrimental effect on our lives and our weight loss.
One of the reasons we need to sleep is that it restores our bodies and our brains. This is why sleep deprivation and chronic insomnia leads to mental fuzziness, inability to concentrate, irritability and eventually insanity. (People who are unable to sleep eventually go crazy and die- not kidding here, sleep is that important!) Sleep allows our brains to update and do basic restorative repair; it’s a lot like when your computer updates and patches are installed in software. This is why your IT people tell you, while it’s okay to leave your computer on most of the time, you still need to restart it occasionally. Sleep is a restart for your brain; I personally think it’s why we have really weird dreams like hearing the color blue or seeing a sound or tasting a feeling. It’s your brain updating pathways and reinforcing connections with your senses and your body.
But it’s not just your brain that needs the restoration. When you sleep, your body releases different hormones, like the sleep hormone melatonin and the growth hormone to repair itself and replenishes other hormones, like the satiety hormone leptin. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body and brain don’t have enough time to fix everything that needs to be taken care of and when you wake up the next day, you are already functioning at a deficit. Your body acknowledges that it’s being stressed and the daytime hormones like cortisol (a stress hormone) end up on over drive. Cortisol can impact your weight loss by interfering with insulin, which shuttles glucose out of your blood and stores it for later use. This interferes with weight loss because when your body is releasing insulin, it’s not burning fat. Your body’s first cortisol surge is in the morning to wake you up and get you moving; the cortisol also impacts your insulin and glucose storing capabilities to encourage your body to store its energy from breakfast (maybe because you’re already up and energized, there’s no need to burn the energy/ fat now).
In the evening, when the sunlight wanes, so does our cortisol but our melatonin levels go up. We start feeling a little less energetic and getting more lethargic in preparation for sleep. The darker it gets, the sleepier we get until we do fall asleep and our body goes into restorative mode. When we delay sleep and make it a luxury, we are harming our bodies. We cannot be our best selves if we are not in top condition. I think it’s ironic that most of us will take our cars in for service every 3000 miles and make sure we use the top tier gas and oil but we don’t do this for ourselves. We feed ourselves the equivalent of cheap gas (aka junk food) and put off changing the oil and servicing it (not enough sleep/ rest). We don’t think twice about doing this to our bodies, but the fact is we can get a new car; we can’t get a new body!
It doesn’t take a lot to get back into the habit of listening to our bodies. Most of us make a habit of NOT listening to our body cues. When we get tired, we just push through to “get stuff done,” and we get up earlier because we “have things to do.” When we keep pushing when our bodies are tired, this is not good. While I recognize that life happens outside our bodies and we have other obligations, we also have an obligation to ourselves. We cannot be our best selves for others if we are always functioning at less than optimum, whether it’s family or our job. Eventually, the poor conditioning catches up with us and it starts showing, sometimes just with mental fuzziness and irritability, but sometimes we get physically ill. Our immune system is not getting restored along with everything else.
How much sleep you need depends on you. Most experts agree that humans need between 8 and 10 hours each night. Only you can figure out how much you need for yourself. Start by tracking how much you sleep and how you feel the next day. If you have a Fitbit or another fitness tracker, most of them have this function; if it’s not actually on the device, it’s usually an option on their website. You can also just do it old school by writing down when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning. If nothing else, it gives you a good ballpark. Like everything else, it’s a learning curve because you are unique. Some people need 10 hours and others are okay with 7. I hear about people who say they are great with 5 or less, but only they know for them. I know that’s not enough for me.
We need to make sleep a priority along with things like eating well and being active. This means we need to make a habit of getting to bed at an hour to give us enough time to get to sleep and get good rest. If we get up earlier than most, that means getting to bed earlier than most. It can be kind of irritating at first, since most of us had not had a “bedtime” since we were kids. But sleep isn’t optional and if we want to be our best selves, we need to make it another important part of our lives.
I know this can be pretty tricky, because we are all individuals, and frankly, this was a lot harder for me than going to the gym or eating well because my circadian rhythms are seriously jacked up (to use the technical term- eye roll). We’ve all heard terms like “night owl” and “early bird” or “morning person.” I am a certified night owl. Although humans are hard wired to be diurnal, I believe I am as close to a nocturnal human being as possible. We all have our natural sleep wake cycles, but mine are very different from most peoples. When left to my own devices (meaning I make my own schedule and don’t have to be someplace at a regular time), I usually get to sleep around two in the morning and wake up around one in the afternoon. This has been my normal cycle since I was a kid. Waking up early (meaning before 10:00 a.m.) can be seriously painful for me. Staying awake in the day is sometimes as hard for me as people who work nights: it’s normally the time I’m asleep. I wonder sometimes if it’s genetic or if it’s learned, since my sister is the same way. (I’ve gotten texts from her at 1:30 a.m. and she is not surprised when I reply within a couple of minutes, nor am I surprised to get her texts.)
I seriously think I get a cortisol surge in the evening as I tend to “wake up” as the night goes on when I can keep my own hours. Since I can’t keep my own hours with my present job, it’s an ongoing struggle to get enough sleep and I’m not always successful. My normal inclination is to be awake at night, which means I’m pretty restless at night. I rarely sleep through the night (like a daytime sleeper, I’m pretty wakeful) and I get my best deepest sleep after 4 or 5 in the morning, which isn’t good because my alarm is set for 5:30! Because waking up early in the morning is usually painful for me and I don’t sleep well at night, I usually have to go to bed much earlier than I like to make sure I have enough time to fall asleep and stay asleep. Since I have to be up and out the door by 6:30 a.m. and the snooze button, although it pretends to be my friend, really isn’t. The longer I put off getting up, the more rushed and difficult and painful it becomes. Being up early is quite a struggle for me and, aside from being painful, it saps a lot of my energy and the earlier I am up, I find the faster I get tired in the evening. It literally drains me, which really doesn’t make for me being my best self. The important thing is that since I know this about me, I am always working on ways to improve my sleep.
Since I am a creature of routine, you would think that I would go right to it to make it easier for me to fall asleep, but it’s still an ongoing project for me. I know a sleep sounds app usually does a good job putting me to sleep fairly quickly (silence just makes the small sounds extra distracting to me- give me noise and I’ll ignore it!). I know reading in bed is also very relaxing, but it’ll take me an hour or so to get sleepy. I know experts also say to turn the lights off, since our skin has photoreceptors which tells your body there’s light out. I can vouch for that, since I was seriously nyctophobic as a kid (fear of darkness), I slept with a light on and when that light went off, I woke up- sometimes just as the light was fading due to failing bulb or power outage. (I still sleep with a light on but now it’s due to cats and pets and assorted pet toys all over the floor, the bed, the hallway, etc.) Experts also tell you to keep things quiet and dark and still so you can sleep, but we are all individuals and that combo will keep me completely wide awake. We all need to figure out what works for us, but once we pay attention to our body’s cues, it’s pretty good at telling us what it needs. We just need to get better at listening to it.