Why the "I'll sleep when I'm dead attitude" might actually kill you
BLOG BY DR. HARRISON WEISINGER
3 important steps to take for better sleep
Emerging research has shown that people that consistently get less than 7 hours of sleep per night are putting themselves at grave risk of a litany of medical conditions, most notably Alzheimer’s Dementia, heart disease, depression, cancer and premature death.
Poor sleep also reduces our ability to think clearly, decreases productivity and creativity at work and exponentially raises the chances of having a car accident.
But what’s equally concerning is the trend among Britons who are now sleeping, on average, 6.5 hours per night. This is 2 hours less per night less than just a few decades ago.
As you’re about to learn, however, the single most important thing you can do to improve your health is to get a good night’s sleep. Every night.
What is Alzheimer's Dementia?
Alzheimer’s Dementia is a devastating condition that, over the space of just a few years, can turn a bright and energetic person into someone incapable of recognising even the closest members of their own family.
People with Alzheimer’s ultimately place an enormous burden on their spouses, children and society, and invariably wind up in nursing homes, where they spend their remaining years sitting idle and confused. The condition is associated with a build-up of particular proteins, such as amyloid and tau proteins, within the substance of the brain.
In recent years, neuroscientists have identified a drainage system in the brain – referred to as the glymphatic system. It is somewhat analogous to the lymphatic drainage system throughout the body.
Importantly, each night while we sleep (and only while we sleep), the glymphatic drainage system is able to expand which allows the day’s build-up of tau and amyloid proteins to be effectively flushed away. This novel finding explains the observation that Alzheimer’s Dementia is far more common in those that had insufficient sleep. Margaret Thatcher was famous for getting just 4 hours of sleep per night but ironically developed dementia.
But the problems caused by insufficient sleep are not limited to dementia. Sleeping less actually shortens your life. In experiments performed decades ago, animals deprived of sleep lived for a fraction of the time they ordinarily would. We also know that normal hormonal function requires adequate sleep.
Even a single night of sleep deprivation can temporarily render a person to have diabetes and this in some way explains why sleep is such a critical factor for weight loss. Furthermore, scientists have also observed increased rates of a variety of cancers in people consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night.
“…the single most important thing you can do to improve your health is to get a good night’s sleep. Every night.”
– Professor Harrison Weisinger, MBBS, PhD
Ready to start sleeping properly?
Here are the first 3 most important steps you can take to get better, more consistent sleep
7. Measure what matters
This is as true for sleep as it is in the world of corporate management. To know how much sleep you’re getting, and the quality of your sleep, you first need to measure it. There is an ever-increasing array of sleep trackers on the market, ranging from phone apps through to wearables and sleep pads that go under your mattress.
None of these are as good as a professional sleep study rig used in a lab, but that’s ok! They all work pretty well and as long as you use one consistently, it will make a difference.
Here are my favourites:
Sleep Cycle (iPhone). A simple app that runs on your phone next to the bed while you sleep. The app works by listening to your breathing and produces a graphical representation of your sleep depth throughout the night. Steel HR (Withings). This is a normal looking watch that doubles as a heart rate monitor, step tracker and sleep monitor. Sleep (Withings). This is a pad that you place under your mattress. The pad is able to sense a range of variables such as your breathing, movements and heart rate Oura ring. A stylish Finnish product that you wear as a ring. You have to go through a simple sizing process (they send you a kit) before you receive your ring. The Oura ring, like other wearables, gives you an idea of both the quantity and phases of sleep using a range of sensors.
6. No stimulants after 3pm
It may sound obvious but taking tea, coffee or other stimulants (such as cold and flu tablets with pseudoephedrine) won’t help you sleep.
To the surprise of many, the half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, meaning that 25% of the caffeine from your coffee at morning tea is still circulating in your body at 11 pm.
Obviously, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others (we all know that annoying someone that can have a double espresso before bed!)
One way to find out what kind of caffeine metaboliser you are is to have a simple DNA test. MyDNA is one company that offers this test – it’s a simple cheek swab and you get an answer within a couple of weeks.
5. Give yourself the time to sleep
Apologies once again for stating the obvious, but it’s important to do the maths when it comes to deciding what time you should go to sleep. Ideally, you want to give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity. Most people take between 10 and 20 minutes to fall asleep, so if you’re alarm is set for 6.30am, it needs to be lights-out by 10.15pm. And if you’re a cyclist or early-riser, remember what’s at stake when deciding between sleep and ‘just one more episode’ on Netflix.
Continue reading part 2 – we dig into what I believe to be the 4 most important practical things you can do in order to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep.