The missing link to a healthier you may simply be a good night’s sleep. It’s fair to assume that most people know how important sleep is; yet it remains one of the most undervalued aspects of modern life. Our hectic lifestyles involve packing more into our days, later nights, earlier starts and less time for the deep rest that is vital to flourishing. Before I remind you of the benefits of proper sleep and the risks of too little sleep, let’s first explore why many of us (myself included, at times) fail to prioritise this healthful ritual…
"Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.
Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions”
The addiction of ‘busy’
Rest is one of the first things we sacrifice when we have too much going on, and as a small business owner I am prone to working late into the evenings when things get overwhelming. Sleep often takes second place to everything else; it’s the thing you do when you’ve got nothing left to do. Being busy has become a badge of honour in today’s fast-paced, sleep-when-you’re-dead culture. We like to compare how busy we are, who slept less last night and who had the more eventful weekend. It feels like, as a society, we associate being busy with being a worthy, successful, valid human. Take a look around (or in the mirror) and you’ll discover we’re obsessed with being busy. Busy has become the new ‘normal’.
My sleep story
All through my 20s my ‘crazy-busy’ lifestyle of burning the candle at both ends (as Nanna would say) took a huge toll on my health. Busy was my normal and consequently, sleep was the area of my life most affected. It was something I thought I could put off until the weekend. I averaged six hours sleep through the week (which may be fine for some, but definitely not enough for my unique body) and couldn’t manage to drag myself out of bed before 10am at the weekend. That was until I completely burnt myself out and ended up with adrenal fatigue, a condition I’d never heard of before.
The turning point
Finally I had permission to slow down – it was my health practitioner’s orders. I paid a lot of money to see this particular health professional and it was necessary that I took my homework seriously. The new me would prioritise sleep, relaxation and mindfulness. Put simply: more being, less doing. It sounded so simple. The hardest thing was learning to say ‘no’ more. No to things that no longer served me, no to multi-tasking, no to back-to-back weekend plans, no to ‘crazy-busy'.
What I’m learning
I’m still learning the art of this self-care thing, it’s definitely a journey, but one that I’m embracing with open arms. Sleep is the gamechanger for me. I realise with hindsight how backwards my “healthy” lifestyle was in in the past! I thought I was healthy, yet I was so obsessed with eating clean and rigorous exercise, that by the time I got home from a long day at the office and in the gym, I didn’t eat dinner until 9pm most nights. This created another unhealthy situation: going to bed late on a full belly, making for a restless night’s sleep. Instead of resting and repairing, I was wide awake digesting and feeling bloated and uncomfortable.
"In our busy culture, there's still a fair amount of pride about not having to sleep and getting a lot of work done,"
Dr Aric Prather
Benefits of sleep
Adequate solid sleep is crucial for our repair and recovery, it’s when the body gets to work clearing away any rogue cells, viruses and bugs. If good ol’ ‘beauty sleep’ isn’t enough of an incentive to get some proper rest, keep the following in mind next time you find yourself skimping on shut eye:
Deep sleep improves our immunity. want to protect yourself from catching the sniffles off a sick co-worker? Slumber is your answer. A University of California San Francisco study found that people who get less than six hours sleep a night are four times more prone to catch a cold when exposed to the virus, compared to people who sleep 7+ hours a night. What’s more the researcher team found that sleep was the greatest determining health factor to indicate the chance of catching a cold. Dr Aric Prather explains that age, stress levels, race, education, income and smoking cigarettes all came second place – after sleep deprivation - in terms of influencing the likelihood of getting a cold. Statistically, sleep is more immune-protecting than any other lifestyle factor.
Sleep is our brain’s best friend: lack of sleep effects our short-term memory. Sleep helps our brain consolidate memories and helps important details become more permanent, it also improves attention, alertness (cheaper than caffeine!), focus, reasoning and problem solving. The good news is once you finally catch up on sleep, your memory will eventually return to normal. And if you’re interested in preventing alzheimers, you may be interested to learn that sleep deprivation is linked to a risk factor for the disease, beta-amyloid. A recent National Institutes of Health study shows that losing just one night sleep immediately increased beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid proteins clump together to create amyloid plaques, a requisite of the disease. As doctor Neal Barnard says “Sleep deprivation really is one of the worst things you can inflict upon your brain”.
Helps you lose weight: want to shed some extra pounds? The answer could simply be: sleep more! Sounds too good to be true, but let me explain. While proper sleep (7+ hours) won’t have you dropping the weight overnight, it is scientifically proven to help you from gaining extra weight. Here’s why: sleeplessness makes us extra hungry (or ‘hangry’ for some) and the hunger hormones, leptin and grehlin, peak when we’re tired. This leads to an increased appetite, reduced satiety (a feeling of being full), more cravings and falling into the temptation of three-thirty-itis pick-me-ups.
It keeps your body in peak condition: Restful seep will help you feel better on every level - mentally, emotionally and physically. Not surprisingly, even a short bout of sleep deprivation can affect your speed, hand-eye coordination, reaction time and muscle recovery when exercising. A 2013 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that sleeplessness reduced muscle strength and power the following day, especially if your workout was later in the afternoon.
It lowers your risk of car accident: As mentioned in the previous point, because insufficient sleep slows our reaction time (and affects our awareness and attention levels), “driving a car when you’re low on sleep is just as dangerous as driving drunk”, says Shalini Paruthi MD a sleep specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Research supports this since people who regularly sleep 6-7 hours a night have double the chance of crashing as those who generally get 8 hours sleep, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Less than five hours slumber, and your odds of an accident quadruple, the study highlights. Bonus point for me: I don’t need a car in my busy London life, so fortunately there’s no risk to myself or others from tired driving.
These are just a few of the amazing benefits of quality sleep. If you want to flourish in life, it's imperative to get horizontal before 10pm. We often get a 'second wind' around this time so we want to ensure we are winding down and ready for rest. This means no devices an hour before bedtime. Don't fall into the unhealthy trap of staying up late to cram more into your day like I used to.
As I mentioned a few weeks back, these steps are incremental and must build upon each other. This week I invite you to continue to eat healthy balanced meals, reduce or eliminate gluten and dairy, eat mindfully and socially, and experiment with proper deep sleep.
Stay tuned next week for part two of sleep where I'll share foods that support slumber, sleep hygiene and environmental factors to ensure you get the beauty sleep that's key to a vibrant and energetic life.
You deserve to flourish.
Note: the opinions and advice contained here are my own, from my own experience, the results from my clients, my studies as an integrative health coach, and my personal research. If you are ever in doubt about any health concerns, or about coming off your medications, please consult a doctor.