I am very happy to say that I have noticed a significant uptick in the amount of information people are putting out about sleep—including sleep gadgets—in the 8 years I’ve been speaking about sleep. Many of us are raised with beliefs like; the early bird gets the worm, sleep is for the weak, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, if you sleep past sun up—your lazy. We hear stories about iconic leaders, entertainers, business executives etc. that claim to sleep 4-5 hours per night. We celebrate these people and hold them up as a shining example of “Success”. If you live in America, you probably think of these people as living the American dream. They are getting after it! Seizing the day! Reaching for the stars and so on.
But, let’s talk about where the “American dream” is going. I still have faith in this country and my fellow countrymen. But, let’s be honest: the dream is not going well for a lot of people. We work more than we’ve ever worked before (as a culture), we are in more debt, we have more responsibilities, fewer kids, fewer vacation days, more chronic illness, more depression, and WAY more obesity. It is true that if you get hit by a bus, or fall prey to a life-threatening infection—America is a great place to be. However, infectious disease, and trauma aside, America is becoming a total beat down way of living.
I will talk more about other aspects of health in blogs to come, but for now, I want to talk about sleep. I believe that sleep is the closest thing in nature to being the elixir of health, or the fountain of youth (if you prefer). Despite all the catchy and sometimes motivating axioms listed above, sleep is actually the LAST thing you should be skimping on. In my estimation, if you are going to chronically ignore any of the 4 pillars of health (Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control), make sleep your last choice to ignore.
Am I saying eat doughnuts for breakfast instead of sleeping 6 hours and eating kale for breakfast? Yes I am.
Am I saying get 8 hours of sleep every night, even if that means you will no longer have time to exercise? Yes I am.
Am I saying give up your meditation, mindfulness, breathing techniques before giving up sleep? Yes I am.
The truth is that NOTHING will break you faster than inadequate or low quality sleep. There is a reason sleep deprivation is used to break down people for interrogation. The reason is because it works! Fast!
A single night of short sleep (2 hours less than you need) alters over 700 epigenetic markers. I’ll talk about epigenetics more in a future post, but basically it describes the ways in which your environment (where you live, how busy you are, what you eat, how much exercise you do, what kind of exercise you do, what supplements and medications you take, etc.) effects your genetic expression. Genetic expression is essentially the rules your cells live by. Think of your genetic code (your personal DNA) as the alphabet, epigenetics would be the dictionary. You have thousands of genes. Some of them are protecting you from disease, and some of them are putting you at higher risk for disease. But, the alphabet doesn’t tell the story. You need to make words by putting certain letters in the right order to express yourself. Epigenetics is doing the same thing with your DNA. This post is not about epigenetics, so I’ll stop there. But, doesn’t 700+ genetic expression changes concern you a little? It does me. I’m not an expert in genetics or epigenetics, but it is an area of great interest to me.
Those 700+ changes are changing what your cells are going to do that day, changing your sensitivity to insulin, altering blood flow and chemicals in your brain, changing not only how hungry you feel, but also what you feel like eating. Those cellular changes also change your mood, your ability to handle stress, your ability to concentrate. They change how much exercise you should get, and how well you’ll be able to perform exercise. In fact, everything that sleep improves (which is any bodily function, biological process, or ANY metric you use to measure your “success”) will be diminished.
Sleep is the ONLY time when you are making sustainable improvements to your body or you brain. If your goal is to be bigger, better, faster, smarter, sexier, higher emotional intelligence, a better communicator, a better parent, healthier, and live a longer and healthier life, sleep is the most under-used, free, pleasant, user friendly tool in your tool box.
All other healthy life-style choices are full of debate: Vegan to Atkins, Body building vs. Cross-fit, Ultramarathons vs. Ironman Triathlons, meditation vs. yoga vs. Tai Chi vs. religious faith, vs. heart rate variability training . . . and on and on it goes. However, do not let it escape your attention that these battles are over which is the best way to fill the need. There is no other way of fulfilling your need for sleep. You have to sleep. Nutritionist are not arguing about how many calories you can survive on. They are trying to find the optimal combination of nutrients for your life-style, and your goals—with the optimal calorie load. Don’t let social programing tell you that the amount of sleep you need is wrong. If sleeping more or better improves your life, you should put everything else on the back shelf, until you have idealized that pillar of health.