The internet is bustling with articles and news flashes about the grand importance of sleep, and how without it we experience shrinking hippocampi (which leads to impaired memory), weakened immune system, depression, irritability, digestive issues, along with other deleterious consequences. In a world that is so connected, so buzzing with information, this need for sleep is becoming more desperate yet much more impossible to accomplish. Access to entertainment and intellectual enhancement has never been more quick, fueling a wicked id’s appetite for immediacy, the infantile instant gratification we have fought so long to restrain. Our minds seem to be adapting to this fast paced information acquisition while conventional wisdom and basic evolution is attempting to maintain a smidgen of sanity. After all, the problem with knowing too much–and all of that hyper-engagement and processing–is that there is a great risk to slip into madness, another reason we should all just sleep and clip away at unnecessary synaptic potentiation (formation and strengthening of nerve cell connections) and neuronal branches that are cluttering up minds.
It’s a well-known fact that artificial lighting, busy work-driven cultures, and the advent of smart phones–don’t forget stress, which creates an auto-catalytic problem–have had a significant impact on global sleep deprivation. But what about those of us who actually just cannot resist being awake? I am one of those people, and I’m pretty sure I am in a very narrow sliver of the pie graph. I have the normal physiological responses that indicate I am in need of slumber, but like a child, I force myself to stay awake. Sometimes I even read with only one eye open because the other is simply too exhausted to help out anymore, but I cannot bear to leave the conscious world. If I didn’t have two little kids asleep in their beds, I’d likely go for a run at maybe 1 or 2am. I just crave life, thoughts, learning, creating, doing. Doing. It is the doing, the constant action and flittering energy that is the spirit of my trouble with somnolence. As a result of my self-induced, elective insomnia, my exercise training suffers because my muscles cannot recover adequately from the workout load. Disturbances in the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), ghrelin, and leptin occur–HGH and leptin are hormones released in abundance at night, facilitating muscle growth and appetite suppression; ghrelin is a hormone that signals hunger–and I also end up secreting too many glucocorticoids (naturally occurring steroids) like cortisol, an adrenal hormone manufactured at high levels when nervous or sleep-deprived. Being a stress hormone, cortisol also makes you feel like eating sugary foods, so now I’m getting fatter, too. Some studies in women have documented that when tired they consume an average of 400 more calories per day than when they are rested. And even when dieting, if too much cortisol is coursing through the blood stream, fat loss ensues but so does the unintended loss of other body tissues. The body may be prone to eat carbohydrate rich foods in an effort to provide more energy it thinks it needs to function, but there is also the psychological effect of having a lower tolerance for restraint at the end of a long day. Perhaps my circadian rhythm just isn’t aligned with the rest of contemporary society. At this point, I have to retrain my body how to sleep, or rather, how to find reward in the anticipation of sleep. Reward…
Dopamine, a famous neurotransmitter is most notably involved with reward and the anticipation of it, and is less known for its implications in memory and learning. It has now been demonstrated that wakefulness can be cited as a result of increased dopamine production. Drugs and certain emotional states that enhance dopamine production in the brain allow people to remain wired and without sleep for as long as the levels chug along higher than what is average for that person. Contrary to intuition (except for those of you who have children and have seen this phenomenon), when forced to stay awake, the brain actually gets a bit of a boost; the brain becomes more active. This kind of excitability within the brain is a result of neurogenesis, the forming of new neurons and connections that happens while we are awake. Sleep provides the brain an opportunity to prune and weaken connections among nerve cells that are excessive or unimportant, saving our brains from becoming over-saturated and slow. We experience quite a bit in one day, and most of that bombardment is useless junk taking up energy we should be conserving for other important physiological projects. The human brain accounts for 20 percent of the body’s daily energy cost, most of that budget going to plasticity (building and supporting synapses in neurons). When we learn something new or practice something repeatedly, we rely on mitochondria and various proteins and lipids to facilitate communication across synapses. It becomes a regular burden to maintain resources for this activity and the brain just isn’t capable of strengthening all synaptic potentiation without respite. Deep sleep is when true repair and memory consolidation takes place, this means that fragmented sleep is nearly as bad as no sleep at all. When people are stressed from sleep deprivation, they simply just cannot perform with the same accuracy and speed–they are suffering from very real, albeit temporary, brain damage. The hippocampus, an structure in the brain that is responsible for the formation of memories, can shrink up to 2% in individuals who are routinely stressed or go too many nights on too little slumber. This is one of the reasons all-night cramming for class is a bad idea.
For most people getting less than 7 hours of sleep means suffering. Period. However, there is a new idea involving psychology and the effect of a placebo: Changing the way we think about how we are affected by sleep deprivation can actually combat the negative ramifications. When using a caffeine placebo, subjects experienced an alleviation in sleepiness and exhibited less harmful cognitive consequences. Beliefs about the quality of sleep you get can alter your mood and behavior throughout the day, however, it isn’t enough to combat the problems with memory consolidation and overall brain efficiency.
Athletes are like children in their need for the land of nod. They require more hours than average and should be taking naps whenever they get the chance. Runners place an enormous strain on their muscles through frequent speed workouts and long runs. The tissues get shredded, macronutrients and minerals become depleted, and the adrenal glands get tired. The only way to keep the body from fatigue is to hit the hay. Back to back workouts can be a great way to boost performance if they are completed with ample rest in between and loads of sleep and protein. If you want to maintain a healthy hormonal profile, healthy relationships, healthy productivity, then allow yourself to shut it all down and go to bed.
Sleep is not to be undervalued. Ever.
Here are a few tips to help you get better rest:
It’s not always easy to stick to a routine or predictable schedule, but actively pursuing sleep and thinking about it as being just as important as your workouts or performance in the world in general can help get you on the road to a healthier body and sharper mind.
1. Create a “Pavlovian space” for sleeping. It’s best to keep your bedroom designed for sleep so that your body and brain associate that area with relaxation and rest.
2. Turn off your devices! Or just put them in another room. Staring at a brightly lit phone, iPad, or TV just before shutting your eyes disrupts the normal brain waves and is hard on the eyes. It is simply too stimulating.
3. Save the caffeine for morning hours! Caffeine can stay in your system for quite some time, drinking a mid-day cup for a boost in energy might impact how easily you fall asleep 4 hours later.
4. Take a warm shower before crawling into bed.
5. Don’t go to bed hungry. Many dieters think this is a great way to lose weight, it’s not. It will be very uncomfortable trying to get to sleep and you could end up eating too much in the morning. Try to find a schedule you can stick to so that you know you aren’t eating right before tucking in for the night, but you’re not reaching the point when hunger hormones jump on board again.
6. Drink some warm non-caffeinated tea or take a supplement that you know will be benefiting your tire muscles. This will stitch together the physiological process of repair and the psychological effect of believing you are healing as you sleep, affording the inclination to feel good about going to bed.
7. If you are ruminating or worried about something, try to talk about it with a supportive friend or loved one, or write in a journal about what you can do about it before going to lay down. Once you’re in that horizontal position, the mind can start racing and you’ll end up feeling awake for hours even though your body desperately wants to fall asleep.