Sleep is a huge issue in our modern world. Insufficient sleep and sleep deprivation, voluntary or not, creates not only a huge cost to society but also to the individual. The situation gets worse and worse, as the following quote exemplifies:
In 1960, a survey study conducted by the American Cancer Society found modal sleep duration to be 8.0 to 8.9 hours, while in 1995 the modal category of the survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation poll had dropped to 7 hours. Recent analyses of national data indicate that a greater percentage of adult Americans report sleeping 6 hours or less in 2004 than in 1985.5 Today, more than 30% of adult men and women between the ages of 30 and 64 years report sleeping less than 6 hours per night.1
Or, as Matthew Walker puts it:
Within the space of a mere hundred years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep—one that evolution spent 3,400,000 years perfecting in service of life-support functions. As a result, the decimation of sleep throughout industrialised nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity, and the education of our children.2
In my coaching practice, new clients often appear more or less overworked, overstressed, sometimes with an attention span like a hamster on meth. When I walk them through a baseline assessment and ask about sleeping habits the majority reports sleep issues. Digging deeper, I frequently notice a lack of information and understanding regarding the importance of sleep and how to fix the issues.
With this article I hope to help you understand better why sleep is important, what are the consequences of insufficient sleep, and how you can improve your sleep so that you can thrive throughout the day.
Why we sleep — at all?
There are numerous functions of sleep, and we will certainly discover more while research on the topic is going on. Here are what I consider the most important ones:
Sleeping before activities that require memorisation facilitates the process of storing away information. Sleeping after memorisation-intense activities enhances our ability to stare away newly acquired information in long-term memory.
Sleep facilitates forgetting unused and irrelevant information, thus cleansing our memory from unnecessary ballast.
During sleep, our brain builds connections between information pieces and tests them, a process that in that depth does not happen when we are awake. This is why you may wake up with the solution for an open question or issue at hand you didn’t think of while you were awake.
While we sleep, the brain cleans metabolic waste: “… the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.”3
Sleep-deprivation is the new “normal” in modern society
Human sleep is increasingly disrupted in modern society. Specifically, since the onset of electric light human’s sun-dictated day-night cycle has been disrupted. Major factors that contribute to our disruption of sleep are:
- Societal framework
- Peer pressure
- Personal stressors
- Use of electric light and LED-technology-based devices
- Exposure to light while sleeping
Children are expected to show up in school around 8:00am. Many adults are expected to show up at work at about the same time. The ways how we are supposed to be a member of society regarding schooling, education, and working, for many people do not allow accommodating their personal sleep cycle. Rather, we are forced into adaptation into a cycle that is defined by society.
“Achievers need to get up at 4am.” — “Achievers sleep at most 5 hours.” — “Sleep faster not longer.” — “You can sleep when you’re dead.”
How often have you heard that, especially in recent years? Sleeping short seems to be the new sexy. We admire people who seemingly get away with 4 to 5 hours of sleep.
Stress is one of the biggest limiting factors to our ability to perform at peak level. Stress is creating distraction, and depletes our energy at light speed. Continuous exposure to stress causes neurobiological changes in our brain, and not to the better. Relating to sleep, stress is creating loose ends in our thoughts and rather than finding restful sleep our brain is going into a continuous story-telling mode. One or many voices in our head prevent us from falling sleeping.
Use of electric light and LED-technology-based devices
Devices like TV, smartphones, tablets, computer screens all work with some sort of LED technology. LEDs are strongly emitting light in the blue frequency range. Blue light is inhibiting the release of the sleep hormone Melatonin. That results in issues with sleep induction as well as sleep quality.
Exposure to light while sleeping
If we are exposed to light while sleeping, e.g. keeping lights on (especially when kids refuse to sleep in the dark) or light coming in through the windows, sleep quality suffers.
Yet besides troublesome short-term side effects that severely impact mood, cognitive performance, and motor performance, a broad array of mid-to long-term consequences arise.
The sleep-deprived human
Getting away with insufficient sleep all of a sudden becomes much less sexy when it comes to the impact on human performance. Clinical studies found these impacts on our health and with that also our performance:
- Bad mood and mood swings
- Memory issues
- Immune system
- Increased risk for diabetes
- Lowered sex drive
- Negative impact on cognitive performance (thinking, concentration)
- Negative impact on motor performance, balance and coordination
- Increased risk of accidents
- Higher blood pressure
- Weight gain (because of high cortisol)
- Increased risk of heart disease
- May favour development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Increased risk of depression
Why is that important?
After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours. Three full nights of recovery sleep (i.e., more nights than a weekend) are insufficient to restore performance back to normal levels after a week of short sleeping.4
If you want to thrive at peak performance levels, there is no way that you get to that level in a continuous sleep-deprived state. Therefore to own your day, fix your sleep.
How do I fix my sleep?
Sleep improvement happens on two axes, sleep quantity and sleep quality. It doesn’t help you sleeping 8 hours and have crappy sleep quality. Nor does it help to have excellent sleep quality and only sleep 4 hours. The latter doesn’t work in any case because essential sleep phases would be missing.
Here are the steps I suggest to my coaching clients when it comes to sleep improvement:
First: quick fixes that work immediately
Fix your bedtime — Go to bed and wake-up every day at the same time. Even on weekends. Changes in bedtime affect your hormonal balance and will result in low sleeper quality.
Coffee / caffeinated drinks — “No coffee after breakfast” is a good rule. Caffeine has a clearance period of more than six hours, so avoid it in the second half of your wake period altogether.
The magnitude of reduction in total sleep time suggests that caffeine taken 6 hours before bedtime has important disruptive effects on sleep and provides empirical support for sleep hygiene recommendations to refrain from substantial caffeine use for a minimum of 6 hours before bedtime. 5
Fix your dinner — All too heavy food intake in the hours before bedtime negatively impacts sleep quality. Eat lighter food and don’t eat in the 3-4 hours before going to bed.
Alcohol — Stay away from it altogether. While it has sleep promoting effects, it will screw up your sleep quality. It will fragment sleep and make you wake up multiple times throughout the night even though these wake periods go mostly unnoticed. Second, alcohol surpasses REM sleep, thus severely impacting your memorisation ability.6
Pitch-black bedroom — Light, even low doses is a sleep disruptor. Make sure your bedroom is pitch black when you sleep.
Cool it down — Our body core temperature needs to drop by 1 degree Celsius (2-3 degrees Fahrenheit) to initiate sleep properly. Ensure to have your bedroom cool, better too cold than too warm.
No electronic devices– Stop using anything with a screen about three hours before you intend to fall asleep.
Wind down — Make sure to wind down starting 2-3 hours before you intend to sleep. That includes to not physically exercise, as exercise will release hormones that suppress sleep. Also, do not go into a mode where you create open ends or start doing things you cannot complete. Any loose end may make you end up in inner dialogue and problem-solving rather than winding down for sleep. Read, meditate, write your daily closure journal, spend quality time with your beloved ones.
Second: long-term fixing your sleep schedule
As we have discussed above, the majority of people do not get sufficient sleep. We have been trained from childhood onwards to follow a sleep rhythm dictated by society, especially when it comes to wake-up time. Children have to show up in school early, and as we move through education into our working life, we are taking it as a given when we should be waking up.
Many people are not in a position to change the time when they have to show up to work. However, what about adjusting the time when we go to sleep? It seems that we have more flexibility there.
To figure out what your best possible sleep schedule is, here is the simple and straightforward process I suggest to my clients:
Phase 1 — Understand your baseline
The objective of this phase is to set a baseline for your sleep rhythm focussing on figuring out your ideal sleep duration. It will require you to stick to a fixed bedtime and leave the wake-up time open (cut-off by the latest possible wake-up time):
- Determine your latest possible wake-up time. This may be constrained by when you need to show up to work or other factors, e.g.kids needing you to get ready for school. Set your alarm clock to that latest time.
- Go to sleep every day at the same time. Be merciless with yourself and others.
- When getting up, note in a sleep journal
- How well rested you are (scale 1-10 with 1 being the worst, 10 being the best)
- When you went to bed (which ideally shows the same time every day!)
- When you woke up
- Calculate how much sleep you got.
Follow this routine for two weeks to collect sufficient data on where you stand for the moment.
Phase 2 — Review and adjust
Review the data collected. How do you feel in the morning? Are you well rested every day? If not, what happened the day/evening before? Were you winding down properly or did you have loose ends in your head?
If you woke up every day well rested — Congratulations, that’s perfect! At which time did you wake up earliest/latest/on average? When the alarm rung or earlier? If you woke up earlier, you should move your alarm clock to that earlier time. Go back to phase 1 and repeat.
If your score is not optimal — You need to adjust.
- Did you wake up when the alarm clock rung? Then it is likely that you don’t get enough sleep. Go to bed half an hour earlier, go back to Phase 1, and repeat the process. Alternatively, assuming that you could wake up later (despite having put your alarm on the latest possible wake-up hour), move your alarm half an hour back, go back to Phase 1 and repeat.
- Did you wake up earlier? It may be that your sleep was disrupted by external factors, e.g. noise, light. Is that happening regularly? You need to fix your bedroom then (which is hopefully possible!) If you wake up earlier consistently but don’t feel well rested, then your hormonal wake-up cycle may kick-in early. Go to bed half an hour earlier, go back to Phase 1 and repeat.
- Did you have trouble sleeping through? What were the factors on the day before that may be the root cause for that? Alcohol? Late coffee? Heavy dinner? Loose ends? Continuous sleep disruption requires a broader set of action as the causes may be very diverse. Get a sleep coach to help you through the adjustment process.
- The majority of people does not get sufficient sleep in terms of quantity and quality
- Insufficient sleep heavily impacts human performance and our ability to thrive at peak performance
- Simple measures can help to fix your sleep if applied consistently
- Knutson, K. L., Spiegel, K., Penev, P., & Van Cauter, E. (2007). The metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation. In Sleep Medicine Reviews (Vol. 11, Issue 3, pp. 163–178). W.B. Saunders Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2007.01.002 ↩
- Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep (p. 340). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O’Donnell, J., Christensen, D. J., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J. J., Takano, T., Deane, R., & Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science, 342(6156), 373–377. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1241224 ↩
- Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep (p. 140). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.3170 ↩
- Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep (p. 271). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. ↩