One thing is clear from the flood of sleep research that has been conducted over the last ten years and more: good sleep is absolutely central to a great many aspects of your physical and mental health. As prominent sleep researcher and expert in the field William Dement, MD, says, “You’re not healthy unless your sleep is healthy.”
Or if you like, think of it this way: if you’ve been doing everything you can to improve your diet and exercise but you’re still not getting the results you’d expect, poor sleep may be the missing part of the puzzle.
So what’s really happening while you sleep? You may look dead to the world, but what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’? Why is sleep so crucial to so many aspects of your health? And most importantly, what can you do to make sure that you optimise your sleep for peak performance?
Why hitting the sack may be just as important as hitting the gym
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t give much thought to what goes on under the hood while you’re sleeping. And that’s a shame: if you knew the half of it, you’d be shocked at how much a good night’s sleep impacts your ability to maximise your fitness and enhance your overall health. For one thing, you may have no idea how active you actually are at night.
During the day you’re generally in a state of catabolism (breaking down), but at night this switches to a state of anabolism (building up). And during this phase, your immune, skeletal, and muscular systems are refreshing and replenishing themselves after a full day of activity. So a night of high-quality sleep is doing wonders to revitalise your brain, refresh your immune system, and balance your hormones.
Think of exercise as stretching your muscle and expanding it beyond current limitations. Exercise causes microscopic injury to the muscle fibers, and as they recover you’ll find that you’re able to enjoy greater strength and flexibility and heightened performance. And it’s during sleep that this critically important recovery phase takes place — sacrifice your time in bed and you’ll also sacrifice your exercise gains.
Put this all together and you’ll understand why a solid seven or eight hours of pillow-time makes you feel so alive. Whether you’re a student or a scholar or a senior citizen, there’s nothing quite like a block of uninterrupted, blissful sleep to optimise your mind and body for peak performance.
Clear out the junk from your brain — and you’ll be smarter for it!
Sluggish and unproductive at work...by 11am? It could be that sleep deprivation is to blame. Sleep is the period during which the system that removes waste materials and toxins from your brain becomes most active. During the course of an average day, metabolism in your busy brain generates lots of unwanted by-products and cellular detritus that must be eliminated in order for your neurological system to perform to a high standard.
Fortunately, though, your brain has a dedicated waste-disposal system that serves this very function. The glymphatic system removes waste materials and toxins from your brain and generally clears house to make way for the ongoing activity of your oh-so-important brain cells. And the glymphatic system happens to be much more active when you’re asleep — 10 times more active. Your brain cells are also 60% smaller at this time, and this makes waste removal much more efficient.
Scientists now believe that one of the main purposes of sleep is to remove all the metabolic debris from your brain and make way for a new round of neurological activity the following day. This goes a long way towards explaining why you’re not your best at work after a rough night. And after weeks or months or years of this, picture your brain looking like the metabolic equivalent of a teenager’s bedroom. Alarmed much…?
Ever get the munchies in the middle of the night…?
And it’s not only your brain cells that get in a muddle when you’re sleep-deprived. Most of us are no stranger to getting the munchies when we’re tired, but did you ever consider the impact this has on your cognitive performance? After as little as 24 hours of sleep deprivation, the amount of glucose reaching the brain reduces by 6%. When you remember that glucose is the brain’s only fuel supply, you’ll see what a serious problem this can be.
And so your munchies are simply a compensation on the part of your body to provide your hungry brain with the calories it craves — it doesn’t really want candy and Krispy Kremes, but what choice have you given it?
What’s worse is that your brain doesn’t lose glucose uniformly across the whole organ: the parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex, areas that are thought to be critical to rational thinking and moral judgment, tend to become most deprived. And that’s why you suffer from such terrible brain-fog when you haven’t had your beauty sleep.
In research revealed in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation was likened to alcohol and marijuana in the impact it can have upon intellectual performance. And physicians whose professional performance was tracked in a study published in the Lancet were found to complete a task 14% slower and make 20% more errors if they were sleep-deprived.
Upgrade your sleep — and upgrade your whole life
And if you’re after an upgrade to your nocturnal habits that’s scientifically proven to improve quality of sleep, reduce anxiety, and elevate mood, then it’s time to look into weighted blankets: