Go to Sleep: Advice from the Book Why We Sleep

Otis Adams

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Reaching 100% of my recommended sleep has become a daily quest. My sleep performance, a phrase that perhaps never existed in the world before the Whoop strap was invented, was typically low and my sleep patterns erratic.

Most of us grew up with some Aunt Bee type reminding us of the importance of a good night’s sleep, but I did not recognize how vital sleep is until studies began showing the links between low sleep performance and increased risk for Alzheimer’s. The link becomes shockingly clear when looking at populations plagued with problems like sleep apnea.

While we sleep, the brain does housework. When we routinely miss the minimum requirements for a good night’s sleep, the brain has less time to wash away beta-amyloid. This is the exact plaque commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer patients.

The issue is that the brain does this housework in the final hours of sleep. If we wake up before reaching that crucial phase, the plaque remains.

Why We Sleep, a book by Professor Matthew Walker, provides an ironclad argument for the importance of sleep. Walker, a neuroscientist, presents study after study proving that sleep dictates not only the quality of our lives, but the length of our lives.

Walker explains the myriad consequences of inadequate sleep in his book. Eight hours of sleep is recommended because routinely getting less than six or seven leads to dire results. The immune system is demolished and the risk of cancer more than doubles.

It can be challenging for some to respond to distant threats, but the impact sleep has in our lives is not only seen after years of neglect. The destructive power of low sleep shows up quickly in the body. If tested after just one week of poor sleep, the blood sugar levels of patients can indicate that they are pre-diabetic, according to Dr. Walker.

If you are still on the fence about whether to stay up late on a school night, Walker adds that inadequate sleep can contribute to stroke, cardiovascular disease, and congestive heart failure because of the impact on our arteries.

Being overweight is connected to low sleep because being tired increases a hormone that tells the brain we are hungry, while simultaneously suppressing a hormone that lets the brain know we are full.

When it comes to our outlook on life, sleep might be king. Walker writes that low sleep contributes to nearly all psychiatric conditions. Sleep and mood are so intertwined that a lack of sleep is correlated with an increased risk of suicide.

The World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic among industrialized nations around the world. As demands for being awake increased in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and South Korea, disease and disorders also rose.

How to sleep better

With the case for sleep made, how do we improve? Here are some recommendations from experts.

Prioritize sleep. How many hours of sleep could you gain each week if you decided it was far more important than picking out tomorrow’s outfit, watching another episode on Netflix, or replying to that email?

Keep track. Whether using a device like a Whoop strap or a notepad on your nightstand, have some reliable record of how much sleep you are getting — so you’ll know how much more you need.

Go to bed at about the same time each night so that your body can develop a routine.

Spend some time in the sun. We are governed by the same internal clock as our ancient ancestors and this circadian rhythm can lose the beat in our indoor, curtains-drawn modern lives. Besides the improved hormones and vitamins a healthy amount of sunlight can provide, it can also reset our clocks.

Avoid coffee and soda in the afternoon. Caffeine can help start the day, but it can impact your ability to relax for hours after the last swallow.

Avoid alcohol and marijuana. While both are sometimes used to relax before bed, Dr. Walker says that they also block our rapid eye movement sleep, or dream sleep. The brain has to wait for these blocking agents to clear the system before attempting to frantically catch up in the final minutes of sleep, if at all.

Put away your devices at night. “Blue light”, the kind that emanates from your television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone, tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s daytime.

Sedation is not sleep! Be careful about those sleep aids. The Mayo Clinic warns that they are “not a magic cure”. The body will develop resistance to some after frequent use and many users complain of having a groggy sort of hangover the next day. Dr. Walker warns that some may knock you out, but sedation is not sleep and we need our brain and body to go through the phases of a healthy night of real sleep.

Consider mindfulness meditation. The techniques of meditation can provide us with the skills needed to quiet a racing mind. We luckily live in a time when apps like “Waking Up” and free guided meditation videos and affordable audiobooks are readily available.

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Author of Lavatory Reader #1: This Road, now available on Amazon. New Twitter @OtisAdamsWrites. Otis Adams is an award-winning writer with three books under his belt and two dozen awards boxed up in his closet for his screenplays and short fiction. He writes regularly on Medium.com and can be contacted at pithbooks@gmail.com.

Columbia, MO
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