Check this out! The world record for the longest period without sleep is 18 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes. Some foolish gentleman decided to partake in a test of human endurance to determine what was indeed possible. Sure, he got the record but the accompanying side effects were horrendous – starting with lapses in concentration and blurred vision, it ended with slurred speech, hallucinations and paranoia. See despite our productivity-motivated efforts in trying to maximise output by minimising sleep, we now recognise the critical, regenerative role sleep plays and need to consider the damage lack of sleep may be doing to us.
Sleeping Is An Active State
We used to believe that when we hit the pillow and finally got to sleep that our brains actually shut off. Many of us would resonate with this belief as not even a tornado which ripped the roof off could awake us from our slumber. Yet we now know that sleep is indeed a very active state of consciousness whereby we move through two distinct phases on repeat every night. The two phases are uniquely classified according to the presence or absence of a darting motion of the eyes that occurs while they are closed.
> Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep
This is the first phase of sleeping and accounts for 75% of our total sleep time. As NREM progresses, you experience a gradual deepening of the sleep as you pass through four substages:
- You alternate been falling asleep and waking up; you are dozing;
- Your body temperature drops slightly and your breathing and heart beat becomes more regular; awareness of your surroundings subsides;
- Your brain waves slow further and the muscles become more relaxed;
- Your sleep is at its deepest as the body aims to restore itself;
> Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
This phase accounts for around 25% of our total sleep time and kicks in around 90 minutes after you have entered stage one. REM sleep then repeats every 90-120 minutes thereafter. The darting motion of the eyes behind closed eye-lids illustrates the heightened activity that is occurring in the brain at this time. Most dreams and for that matter nightmares, occur in this stage and many of them are vivid.
How Much Is Enough?
The amount each of us require to function normally varies and can depend on factors such as age, lifestyle, health level and whether the sleep you are getting is quality sleep or not. Scientist agree that there is no magic number and your requirement is better self-assessed according to how you feel after different intervals of sleep.
The approximate suitable range appears to be somewhere between seven and nine hours but ultimately your individual requirement must also take into account any accumulated sleep debt. Yes fellas, like our credit cards if you consistently under-sleep according to your needs, your body asks you to repay that debt with extra sleep. This is why after a massive week at work, you ‘hit the wall’. You were feeling ok and then you stopped and your body is demanding you get some sleep to restore the balance you owe it.
It’s Just Tiredness, What’s The Big Deal?
The health consequences of continued sleep deprivation extends well beyond a drop in productivity at work. We’re talking major negative consequences on your safety and overall health and risk of disease. Sleep disorders range from mild insomnia, snoring and teeth grinding to more major conditions like sleep walking, night terrors and sleep apnoea where your ability to breath freely while sleeping is compromised.
People suffering sleep disorders are more prone to:
- Being overweight or obese – this is due to an upset to our metabolism/hormone balance and appetite regulation. Energy depleted people are more like to eat poorly and exercise less and this causes weight gain.
- Developing diabetes – blood glucose levels become irregular and this increases risk of developing the condition. The risk is particularly high for those sleeping less than 5 hours a day on a regular basis.
- Developing high blood pressure and heart disease – the exact reason is not well understood but there is a strong link between sleep apnoea and increased blood pressure which then becomes a risk factor for heart disease.
- Suffering mental health conditions – mental exhaustion can lead to higher stress levels, anxiety and depression.
- Abusing alcohol – poor sleepers often use alcohol as a sedative but it prevents the individual going into the deeper sleep stages. So not only can the alcohol abuse become problematic, the sleep quality can worsen.
- Being involved in accidents – drivers and shift workers particularly place themselves at a great risk of being injured or killed as a result of decreased awareness stemming from being fatigued. Put it this way – if you fall asleep at the wheel for four seconds travelling at 100km/hour, the car will have traversed 111 metres without a responsive driver. That’s a recipe for disaster!
So What Practical Things Can Do To Improve My Sleep Duration and Quality?
Here are some effective tips to help you conquer your sleeping troubles. Please be aware that for serious sleeplessness, a GP consult is a very good starting point to improving your outlook.
- Don’t take sleep for granted – time spent sleeping is well spent. Acknowledge your need to let your body rest and regenerate.
- Get some consistency – trying to rise and retire at approximately the same time every day and night. The consistency helps your body and mind get into a pattern of gearing up and winding down.
- Improve your sleep space – invest in a decent bed, you’ll spend approximately a third of your life in it! You should block out any sources of light including electronics and make sure that its a comfortable temperature.
- Remove the mental stimulants – TV’s, phones, iPads and gaming consoles only serve to stimulate your brain activity at a time you should be looking to slow it down. Meditation is an extremely good alternative.
- Avoid alcohol and sedatives – these are bandaid solutions to a larger problem and you must treat the key issue to permanently resolve your sleep woes. Addiction to these items only compounds your problems.
- Avoid eating and drinking prior to sleep – late night snack or meals can cause heartburn and indigestion and restlessness if they are to close to bedtime. Excessive fluids will have you waking for ‘number 1’s.’
- Take steps to improve your overall lifestyle – regular physical activity, healthy nutrition and an active management of your life-stresses through relaxation will prime you for a better sleep.
Aim to make quality sleep a priority! Take it from Mahatma Gandhi, he knows best – “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”