Improving Sleep (Part 1): Why we Sleep and the Benefits of Improving our Sleep

By Susan E. Sklar, M.D.

Why do we sleep and what are the benefits of improving our sleep?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “About 30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia and about 10 percent of adults have insomnia that is severe enough to cause daytime consequences.”[1] So, poor sleep is common. Moreover, improving sleep is especially important in leading a healthful and happy life.

In this first article of a two-part series, I answer some questions that help lead us to improving sleep. The first is why we sleep and the second explains the benefits of sleep.

Why Do We Sleep?

Before we improve sleep, we must understand why we sleep. Until about 25 years ago, nobody really knew why we sleep. I mean, why would we go semi-comatose for a third of our lives? When we sleep, we are vulnerable. Wild animals can eat us or drag us away. Why did animals change their sleep patterns over evolution? Why would that be a benefit?

 Sleep is a Revolutionary Anti-Aging Cure.

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”[2] The answer?  It’s sleep. It does all those things. This is from a terrific book called “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Matthew Walker.

Sleep is How We Became Humans.

When humans came down out of the trees onto the ground and began sleeping on the ground, they were able to evolve. Researchers like Dr. Walker think that fire had a lot to do with protecting us when we were down on the ground by keeping animals away.

During evolution, humans developed a part of sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) where our bodies go limp. This part of sleep allowed us to get to the top of the evolutionary pyramid and develop our complex brain and social systems. The sophisticated brain changes in memory and creativity that occur during REM sleep are what set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Sleep is not just being semi-comatose. It’s not merely the absence of being awake. There is a lot that goes on in your body and in our brain when we sleep. It is an active process.

While we are asleep, we are not aware of it, but there is a lot going on. Sleep removes toxins, repairs damage, and processes our memories. Moreover, it is sleep that enabled us to become humans with our complex society. But today 50-70 million people in America report sleep problems.3 Today improving our sleep is a major issue so that we can continue to function as effective humans.

 What are the Benefits of Sleep?

What sleep has done is to enable us to develop an emotional IQ. We can recognize facial expressions and be aware of subtle interpretations of what’s going on around us. This has led to being able to have complex social actions and indeed to develop communities and societies. Animals have their societies, but certainly not on the complex level that we do. It is believed that sleep is responsible for our success as a species.

Sleep Slows Down the Aging Process.

What sleep does for us is to help slow down the aging process.  Sleep produces hormones. One of these hormones is human growth hormone. It is our most potent anti-aging hormone. Growth hormone is a healing hormone. This hormone is released during deep sleep. Sleep enhances our memory and our mental clarity. Today improving sleep is critical to our well-being.

The sleep that you got last night readies your brain for what you’re going to take in today.  And the sleep you get tonight will process what we take in today and file it away. It’s like unloading a flash drive so that you’re ready the next day to take in new information.

Sleep will improve athletic performance. For sure, it boosts mood and overall energy and it increases our ability to withstand stress. Anybody who’s had significant insomnia can tell you that when you can’t sleep that your moods tank, they go downhill and your ability to deal with stress really decreases.

Good Sleep Decreases Cardiovascular Disease

Before electricity was available, people slept 9 to 10 hours a night. In the past 100 years, we are averaging less and less sleep. Some of us can sleep seven to eight hours a night, but we don’t because we are too busy, or we have got too much going on. If you can sleep seven or eight hours a night, then you need to do it. For the rest of us that have insomnia and don’t sleep enough for reasons that are beyond our control we will supply information and solutions in Improving Sleep (Part 2).

One important health risk from lack of sleep is cardiovascular disease, meaning heart attacks and strokes.  Also, cardiovascular disease can impair your brain function if you get clogging of the arteries in the brain. We see that as one of the reasons for dementia.

Sleep Prevents Obesity

People who don’t get enough sleep were part of a controlled study. The subjects were in a sleep lab, in a hotel-like environment with as much food as they wanted to eat at their meals. If they do not get enough sleep, after a couple of nights of four- or five-hours sleep, they ate 300 calories more a day. Lack of sleep reset their hunger and satiety in the short-term. Researchers found they were hungrier. They felt hungrier and they ate more. An additional 300 calories per day can add significantly to weight.[4] The obesity epidemic in the United States has coincided with decrease in sleep from 9 hours average a night to 6 hours a night over the past 60 years.

Diabetes Risk Increases with Lack of Sleep

When we don’t get enough sleep, our blood sugar and insulin don’t work properly. We are at increased risk of diabetes. Insulin is a gate that opens the cell up to allow glucose to enter. Glucose is our fuel. Our cells need fuel. Insulin resistance happens when insulin does not open that gate.  Therefore, we can end up with, extra sugar or glucose floating around in our bloodstream doing damage. Extra glucose in our blood stream causes diabetes which can cause heart disease and affects the small arteries all over our bodies.

Sleep Maintains Brain Health

There are some people who claim that they’re enormously proud of the fact that they don’t need what they think is as much sleep as everybody else. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were two of those people who bragged about the fact that they only needed five hours or less sleep at night, and they both developed Alzheimer’s. I’m not saying it was the only reason they did, but it certainly may have been a significant factor

Sleep is important because that is when our memories get filed away, processed, and put in order. We don’t just remember facts. We put them into the larger context of our worldview, of our experiences. All of that comes into play during sleep.

In addition, sleep governs our moods. Who doesn’t feel more anxious or depressed with sleep deprivation on a regular basis?

Sleep, Amyloid and Brain Health

During certain parts of sleep, your brain clears out trash and waste products. One of those waste products is amyloid, which is a sticky protein that has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. People think it causes Alzheimer’s. It may not actually cause Alzheimer’s. It, in fact, may be a protective mechanism.

Amyloid is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. And so, if bacteria or viruses have affected your brain, it wants to protect itself and it will start to produce amyloid. The body produces amyloid in the course of normal brain function and our brain can clear it out if you get enough sleep.  Lack of sleep leads to an accumulation of the amyloid. Amyloid, while not causing Alzheimer’s, may be a marker of the impending disease.

Sleep Repairs the Body

Human growth hormone is a really healing hormone. Importantly, growth hormone repairs our tissues all over our bodies by.  Human growth hormone maintains our muscle mass, energy, moods and memory.

During sleep a gland in brain, the pineal gland, releases Melatonin. Melatonin is what makes us fall asleep and keeps us asleep and has tremendous antioxidant and anticancer properties. Shift workers who work the night shift and lack sleep, have a higher rate of breast cancer.[5] In fact, in some European countries like Denmark, the state has started paying workers’ compensation to women who have night jobs and develop breast cancer because it’s an occupational risk.

Sleep is important for a healthy immune system to fight off disease. One night of lack of sleep and your cellular immunity changes significantly. If you’re talking about fighting off colds and flus, you really want to be sure you get sleep. Otherwise, you have as much as a 40% reduction in some of the important immune cells that are important for fighting infection.

How is Sleep Regulated?

There are a couple of things that regulate sleep. First there is our diurnal cycle, also called our day/night cycle. The sun governs this cycle. When sunlight hits our eyes, it triggers certain things to happen physiologically. Then when the sun goes down and night falls, it triggers other things to happen.

In modern times, we have artificial lights, so many of us have lost our natural triggers for sleep, and it has had an enormous impact on our society. However, our bodies still go in and out of day/night cycles in a way that is beyond our control. We feel it when we travel through time zones. Consequently, we get jet lag because your old day/night cycle is functioning even though you’re in a new time zone.

Another thing that governs sleep is a chemical called adenosine. Adenosine builds up as we are awake during the day. This is what is known in the scientific field as “sleep pressure.” Over the course of the day, more and more adenosine builds up making us feel tired, and we say, “Oh, it’s time to go to sleep.” Know what blocks adenosine? Caffeine. If we are feeling sleepy and we have coffee, the caffeine will block adenosine from getting on the receptors. Even though caffeine makes us feel less sleeping, we keep making adenosine.

Then, when the caffeine wears off, we are going to feel really sleepy. I’m explaining this so that you will understand some of the things that come into play and what drinking caffeine does to us and how it impairs sleep.

If caffeine is keeping you from falling asleep, it’s through the adenosine pathway. It’s important not to use caffeine if that’s happening. In general, I don’t recommend that people use caffeine as a way of keeping their energy. I like to find out why energy is decreased and address that rather than having people end up using it as a crutch.

In part 2 of this series I will share a bit more about sleep and offer some tips for getting ideal sleep and improving sleep. Or, if you are wanting more personal help, give us a call today at 562-596-5196 to request a free consultation.

References:

  1. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Fact sheet October.
    LINK: Insomnia
  2. Matthew Walker, PhD.
    Why We Sleep. p. 107, Scribner 2017.
  3. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM
    Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem
    Washington (DC): National Academies Press. 2006.
    LINK: Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem
  4. Matthew Walker, PhD
    Why We Sleep. p. 176, Scribner 2017.
  5. Burki TK
    Night Shift Work and Breast Cancer
    Lancet Oncol. 2019 Jul;20(7):e352. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(19)30383-3. Epub 2019 Jun 6.
    No abstract available.

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