Some of us adore sleep and see no better place to pass the hours than relaxing in bed whilst others see sleep as valuable wasted time and try to get by on the absolute minimum.
Both Tony Robbins and Margaret Thatcher are examples of people who have been well known for boasting about only needing 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night. With Margaret Thatcher famously saying, “sleeping is for wimps” and we’ve all heard the annoying phrase “you snooze, you lose”.
In 2013 I attended a 4 day Tony Robbins event and survived on very little sleep. His trick is to get himself and the participants so pumped with adrenaline to dramatically increase endurance. It worked a treat and I could never have predicted surviving so well on such little sleep. It was certainly not something I would want to do long term as I knew I was functioning on high adrenaline, something I try to avoid these days. This creates high cortisol in the body and with it a whole host of health problems in the long term, you just need to take a peek at Margaret Thatcher’s death certificate. This is really not a healthy approach and why so many people end up burning out.
So what really is the deal with spending on average one third of our lives in bed?
For 30 plus years I had a very healthy relationship with sleep. I slept well, enjoyed lie-ins on weekends or holidays and always looked forward to my bed the day after a night out partying. Sleep wasn’t something I particularly craved or avoided. That is until I got M.E. (Myalgic encephalomyelitis) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my 30s. This was a complete game changer.
The difficulty with M.E. was that I felt tired all the time and yet at night I was not able to get deep refreshing sleep and often spent hours lying anxiously awake sometimes verging on having a panic attack. Nights were often accompanied with tinnitus, that familiar buzzing sound in the ears that seems 10 times louder at 3am in the morning. Sleep or lack of it became an obsession. I felt chronically tired all the time and yet when it came to bed time my body didn’t seem to want to switch off or didn’t know how to. As other extreme insomniacs will concur, functioning on so little sleep is and was torture on top of all the other horrible debilitating M.E. symptoms. Each day was survival rather than living, until I could crawl into bed again.
I am glad to report years on, not only am I fully recovered from M.E. but also I am in the best health of my life. Nutrition and an understanding of how the body functions on a cellular level have been key in healing myself. I am a great sleeper now unless disturbed by things out of my control, like a poorly child knocking on the door in the middle of the night and even if I do have a couple of nights of restless sleep (due to a very rare case of stress), I know exactly how to make sure it doesn’t become a long term problem.
In my practice when seeing clients, sleep and energy levels are key factors in evaluating how well their bodies are functioning on a cellular level. When these are out of balance this is the first sign of manifesting dis-ease within the body. It still surprises me when people exclaim they are in very good health and then will sometimes casually mention in a conversation that they have terrible trouble sleeping.
There are 4 very important electrolytes within each cell of our body that are key to providing the relaxation at night we need and the charge of energy that kicks in at the start of each day. The movement of both potassium and magnesium into the cell prepare us for the night time hours. These electrolytes relax everything in the body and are just what we need for a good night’s sleep. Conversely, both calcium and sodium provide the charge and the energy as they move into the cell in daylight hours. This is quite literally how our batteries recharge to start each day afresh and full of beans.
Working on the efficient flow of these electrolytes and all-important minerals in and out of the cell will have us sleeping beautifully and jumping out of bed in the morning full of energy. There are many reasons as to why this electrolyte exchange can be impaired. A lack of magnesium and potassium in the diet, which is very common with depleted soil from modern farming methods and diets low in vegetables, which then results in an inability to displace calcium and sodium. It’s no surprise that most sleep-friendly foods are high in magnesium. Even if there is sufficient magnesium and potassium in the diet then a high sodium diet with lots of processed foods will also prevent this exchange happening effectively. If the body is dehydrated then a hardened cholesterol ring will form around the cells preserving what little water is left in the body thereby impairing the flow of the electrolytes in and out of the hardened cellular membrane.
If you are a regular to my blog, you will also know that I am a huge fan of omega 3 oils and these crop up time and again when discussing optimum health. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), found in omega 3 oils are key to good brain health and the central nervous system and have also been found to contribute greatly to a good night's sleep. A recent study of children by Oxford University found those who intially had sleep problems, when placed on the omega 3 supplement slept for an hour longer, had fewer wakings and had less anxiety around sleep.
I have never gone in for bragging rights on surviving on little sleep. Sleep is such a fundamental part of our biology and keeping us in the best of health. For me good quality sleep is a very high priority and gives me the maximum chance of getting the most out of each day.
Lets face it none of us are creative when we’re tired and when tired we are far more prone to reaching for props to see us through the day, like caffeine, sugar and other simple carbs. In extreme cases some people then find they can’t switch off at night after stimulants in the day, so then reach for alcohol, cannabis or sleeping pills to sedate their busy minds.
With sleep deprivation our relationships and interpersonal skills also suffer. We are far less patient and tolerant. I know my empathy drops like a stone when I’m very tired. Long term sleep problems can also lead to depression and a poorly functioning immune system as so many rest and repair jobs happen at night only when we are sleeping. A lack of sleep also increases your risk of weight gain, obesity and diabetes as hormone function is also adversely affected by lack of sleep.
A ground-breaking court case in 2009 emerged from the Danish Government, who began to pay compensation to women who had developed breast cancer after long spells working nights as flight attendants. The Danish authorities acted following a finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the UN's World Health Organisation. The IARC studies and ranks cancer risks. Category One risks are known carcinogens such as asbestos. Night working now sits just one rung below that as a probable cause of cancer. A report published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed a 36% greater risk of breast cancer for women who had worked night shifts for more than 30 years, compared with women who had never worked nights. This was a ground breaking case showing quite clearly how enforced lack of sleep through work has a huge detrimental effect on health.
Of course there is some variation on how much sleep people need but for some the habit is so established they don’t even realize they are chronically sleep deprived, especially shift workers. Ideally you need to be going to bed at roughly the same time every night and waking at the same time everyday, without an alarm with an average of about 8 hours sleep.
Here is some great general advice on giving your self the best chance of a good night’s sleep:
- Look at your diet – cut out processed high sodium foods and other stimulants including caffeine, sugar, artificial sweeteners and alcohol
- Don’t eat too close to bedtime, but also don’t go to bed hungry, as low blood sugar levels will pull you out of a deep sleep
- Lower your anxiety by cutting down on sugary foods, try meditation and avoid watching or reading anything that stimulates the mind too much before going to bed
- Try having low lighting in the evening to help your natural body rhythms adjust to the end of the day ready for sleep
- Switch off Wifi at night and do not keep anything electronic in the bedroom as they can interfere with our sleep rhythms
- Ensure your bedroom is nice and dark and if needs be invest in blackout curtains
- Sleep in a cool room as an overheated body is a restless one
- Make sure you’re drinking around 2 litres of good quality drinking water a day but not too close to bedtime so that you have to get up to pee in the night
- No screen time of any sort (mobile phones, computer, TV) for at least an hour, preferably 2 hours before bed
- Try taking an Epsom salts bath – it’s full of magnesium and very efficiently absorbed through the skin
- Try and exercise regularly, this has a very positive effect on calcium
There is so much research to show that long term sleep loss does make you more susceptible to health problems. It pays dividends to see that good health = vital energy. Start prioritizing your sleep. If you feel you need guidance on getting back into good sleep habits or switching to more sleep friendly foods then you can book me for a free 20 minute Skype consultation to discuss what may work for you on an individual basis. Here is a link to the form where you can contact me:
Alternatively you can book consultations by calling me 07786 687444 or you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you found this article interesting and informative then please share with your friends, family or work colleagues. Signing up for my fortnightly health blog can be done here:
Don't forget to join the discussion by leaving a comment in the box below. How do you ensure you always get a good night's sleep?