Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about sleep but were too tired to ask
Your best friend went completely INSANE last night.
She hallucinated, which means she saw things that weren’t there. She was delusional, disoriented and confused about time, her surroundings, and her situation. She had uncontrollable wild emotions, and did things that she previously thought were impossible. And when it ended, she barely remembered the experience.
Before you call her crazy, you would have to call yourself crazy too. We call the combination of these strange sensations “dreaming,” and it’s a side effect of sleeping.
Our brain craves sleeping and dreaming so much that if we become sleep deprived, our brain will put parts of itself to sleep and we will experience mid-day hallucinations. Trippy.
Have you ever wondered why we sleep at all? Why we dream? Scientists aren’t in agreement as to why we sleep, and that’s because there’s new research everyday that shows the innumerable chemical, psychological, physiological, and biological reasons for sleep.
Along with every known animal, humans must sleep (dolphins sleep with half of their brain at a time, so they are perpetually “awake.”). Animals, who must fight for survival against one another, procreate, and take care of their young, must take time everyday to be unconscious. Your body and brain are putting your whole life on the line for sleep.
Chances are you’re perpetually sleep deprived. And you might even be bragging about your great ‘work ethic,’ telling your buddies at the water cooler: “Yeah, I only got 5 hours of sleep last night. I’m just soooo busy.” Or using it as an easy excuse for mistakes: “Oh man, sorry I forgot to add the uranium to the nuclear reactor, I didn’t get much sleep.” Some even use their lack of sleep as a subtle way to flex their machismo. I venture to say that our culture’s way of viewing lack of sleep is almost as frightening as the Twilight Zone.
While in school, doctors receive 1-2 hours of education on how sleep affects our health. So, those on the forefront of taking care of our health and well-being are not fully educated on this important health topic. When I asked my general practitioner how I could get more sleep and feel more rested, he recommended I take low-dose Ambien. You know, the stuff that doesn’t solve the root problems of sleeping habits and is a moderately addictive and somewhat harmful substance?
Over the past decade, the science on sleep has been very eye opening (no pun intended). In this short article, I hope to answer a few questions about most teenager’s favorite hobby:
How much sleep do most people in America get?
What does the research say is the optimal amount of sleep?
How does getting too little sleep compare to getting the right amount of sleep? We’ll see how sleep affects those looking to exercise and improve their health, employees and businesses, people’s brains and bodies, and other ways sleep affects life.
How can we improve the quality of sleep we get, so we can sleep less hours and still feel rested?
What can we do to increase the number of hours we sleep?
1. How Much We Sleep
The table on your right is a Gallup poll taken over the past century that looks at the sleeping habits of Americans. You can see that in 1942, almost half of Americans got 8 hours of sleep or more, and on average people slept 8 hours. In the past few decades, more than 40% of Americans get 6 hours of sleep or less. On average, Americans sleep 6.8 hours every night.
But who cares how much they slept in the past? Do you really even notice a difference between a few hours?
Most people who get 6 hours or less every night feel that they need more sleep to function better. 50% of those who get 7 hours of sleep feel that they need more sleep.
There are many factors that go into why people get less sleep now compared to 1942, including longer work days, more responsibilities, more artificial lighting from phones, computers and overhead lights, less exercise, societal standards, early school start times, more stress and pressures, etc.
2. The Amount of Sleep We Really Need
Everyone’s sleep clock is unique and each person needs a different amount of sleep at various times and periods of life. For example, as you get older, your sleep needs seem to decrease.
Collecting accurate data is difficult since the research on sleep is still new, having been conducted only in the past few decades. Sleep research is almost exclusively conducted on adults, and occasionally teenagers since it is difficult (and sometimes unethical) to enforce kids not to sleep adequately.
The studies have shown that less than 1% of people can function optimally on 6 hours of sleep every night. But before we can decisively say how much sleep is optimal, let’s look at the studies.
3. The Effects of Sleep Deprivation
How sleep affects your health and well-being
On average, men that sleep 5-6 hours a night will have a testosterone level of a man 10-years their senior who sleeps 8 hours a night. An important component of building muscle is getting enough sleep.
A lack of sleep affects our bone and joint health. When athletes get 6 hours of sleep during their season, there’s a 65% increased risk of injury compared to athletes who get 8 hours. Sleep also increases our stability and balance, decreasing the risk of a serious fall or misstep.
Sleep is important for having a healthy heart. If you get less than 8 hours of sleep, it is more challenging to improve your cardio abilities because your brain and body have a harder time taking in and utilizing oxygen. Sleep deprivation is also linked to cardiovascular disease.
When we fall asleep, our body lowers our blood sugar levels. Lack of sleep leads to elevated blood sugar levels and a higher risk of diabetes.
Sleep impacts weight gain. We have 2 hormones that control our appetite: One is released to tell us that we’re hungry, and the other is released to tell us we’re full. When you have less than 8 hours of sleep, your hormone that says you’re hungry increases, while the hormone that says you’re satiated decreases. You eat more while being less active! This is a key factor in explaining why obesity has increased while sleep length has decreased.
If you’re dieting and trying to lose weight but get 6 hours of sleep or less, around 75% of the weight you lose will come from lean body mass (your muscles and organs). This is not normal or healthy. If you get 8.5 hours of sleep, less than 20% of the weight you lose comes from lean body mass. If you want to get in great shape, like my clients, sleep is an important part of gaining muscle and losing fat.
There’s a link between decreased sleep and cancer.
Lack of sleep slows reaction time, making it very difficult for athletes to perform optimally.
Getting less sleep literally changes our gene expression, turning 100’s of our genes off and distorting them.
How sleep affects your brain
90% of the studies done on sleep concluded that lack of sleep has a negative effect on cognitive performance, including attention, working memory, long-term memory, visual-motor performance, decision making, verbal functions, response inhibition, task-shifting, and more.
One of the most significant factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease is lack of sleep.
“Sleeping on a problem” is in every language. When you sleep, your mind tests novel connections between neurons. This creates connections between thoughts, actions, and associations that wouldn’t normally be there. Sleep is a facilitator of creativity.
If you want to learn faster and retain information that you’ve learned, sleeping is critical. When you sleep, your brain replays the neural patterns you created during the day to help you learn and remember them. That’s why when you’re learning a skill, after a good night of sleep, you wake up 20-30% more efficient at that skill than before you went to bed. 
Sleep is very important for emotional health. Just one week of sleeping 5 hours a night can lead to a significant decrease in mood, making people much more irritable and unhappy.
Early school start times make it very difficult for teens to get the right amount of sleep for growth and learning. When schools in California pushed the school start times later, SAT scores dramatically increased and there was a 70% drop in car crashes, saving many lives.
What doctors often won’t tell you is that a huge portion of kids and teens on ADHD medication have bad sleeping habits since the medication will mask tiredness and prevent establishing a circadian rhythm.
Your brain is able to create new neurons in order to learn and store new information in a process called neurogenesis. When your sleep cycle is disturbed, your brain doesn’t build neurons as effectively.
How sleep affects your professional life
It’s a well-held belief that if you sleep less, you will achieve more. Less sleep does not increase productivity. Employees that got 6 hours of sleep or less:
take on fewer work challenges, and the ones they do take on are low-level challenges (checking voicemails, answering emails, etc.)
produce fewer creative solutions.
slack off in group meetings and projects (social loafing).
are less charismatic and seem less like a “leader”.
Medical residents in hospitals often have to work shifts well beyond 24 hours at a time. Some even work 110-120 hours/week. The mindset in the medical community is “the more hours you work in your first 2 years, the better you will do as a professional.” This has not been shown to be the case. Residents working a 30-hour shift are almost 5x more likely to make diagnostic errors than those working a 16 hour shift. This means that the standard practice at medical school is to risk their patient’s lives. The worst part is, the residents working longer hours aren’t significantly better at their job in the long run than those working less.
If your surgeon has had 6 hours of sleep or less in the past 24 hours, you have a 170% increased risk of a major surgical error compared to 8 hours of sleep.
All of the research shows that 8 hours of sleep is the gold standard for adults! Now that you know how sleep impacts your life, let’s find out how to improve it!
4. Increase Your Quality of Sleep
Have you ever had a regular amount of sleep but still felt tired the next day? Or maybe the opposite, where you didn’t get many hours of sleep but felt alert and wakeful throughout the day? Here are ways to sleep less but still feel rested:
Cut the lights: Lights have a significant impact on your sleep quality. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your brain that you’re tired and allows you to sleep. Without melatonin, even if you feel like you are sleeping, your brain does not go through its stages of sleep and the quality of your sleep is very poor. If your eyes register even a small amount of light, your brain doesn’t produce melatonin well, if at all. At night, turn off the lights and invest in curtains that block out as much sunlight as possible.
Limit screen time at night: When the lights are on or you are looking at a screen late at night, your brain does not produce melatonin. After you turn off the lights, it takes a full 1.5 hours for your melatonin to get to levels that would be considered normal for sleeping. This means that if you get 8 hours of sleep, your brain will be asleep for only about 7. The earlier you turn off screens and lights at night, the better.
Get sunlight: Sunlight is a key factor in keeping our circadian rhythm stable. Most people don’t get enough sunlight because of indoor jobs and activities. Simply working near an open window works as well!
Exercise midday: Exercise increases sleep quality and feelings of restfulness . (Working out too close to bedtime is usually not good because it can keep you awake.) In order to fall asleep, your brain must decrease its temperate about 3 degrees Fahrenheit.  Although exercise heats up our bodies, our sweat and our body’s desire to bring our temperate back down results in cooler internal temperate. This decrease in temperature helps us fall asleep faster and increases our sleep quality.
Limit alcohol and drug consumption: (I know I know, I’m not happy about this either). Psychoactive drugs don’t allow our brains to get into the deeper stages of sleep, creating a “dream deficiency.” This can cause day-dreaming and less alert throughout the day.
Sleep in your own bed more often: When you sleep in a bed or room you don’t usually sleep in, half of our brain stays alert, just in case there are predators nearby!
Don’t eat right before bed (especially desserts and sugary foods): Food is full of energy and will keep your mind and body awake and active.
Drink lots of water throughout the day: Water is an important way to improve sleep quality. I recommend my clients drink 1 liter of water when they wake up, 0.5-1 liter of water before every meal, and 1 liter of water an hour before they go to bed.
5. Catch more Z’s: Increase your Hours of sleep
We saw in the previous section that the gold standard for adults is 8 hours of sleep. If you have a difficult time falling asleep and staying sleep, here are some powerful techniques:
Meditation before bed: So many people tell me “I was up late last night because I couldn’t stop thinking about stuff. I couldn’t fall asleep!” It’s often falling asleep that’s the most challenging, not staying asleep. Physical stress makes it very difficult to relax enough to fall asleep. For 10 minutes everyday lay in bed and practice relaxing your muscles. Start with the muscles in your face ,then move onto the muscles in your neck. Work your way all the way down your body until every muscle feels relaxed. I almost always fall asleep before I get to my toes :)
Exercise midday: People who exercise 30 minutes a day sleep 45 minutes-1 hour more than others.
Limit caffeine: Especially in the afternoon and night. Coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks can wreak havoc on our sleep cycle.
Keep your room very dark: Get curtains and blinds that block out as much light as possible.
Increase melatonin production with food: Almost all foods contain natural melatonin, and unlike melatonin supplements, you do not build up an intolerance to naturally occurring melatonin.
Pistachios have the most natural melatonin. Just 1 handful of pistachios is equivalent to a high-dose melatonin pill!
1 ounce of cranberries has enough melatonin to have an effect on sleep.
Turn off your phone 1-2 hours before going to bed.
Regular sleep times: Go to sleep and wake up at the same time everyday. This will create a circadian rhythm that your body will naturally fall into.
Decrease the temperature in your bedroom: Having a cooler room makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
I hope you can take this advice and turn some of it into habits and routines that improve your sleep and improve your life.
For further information or to learn more about my in-home custom workouts and nutrition plans, feel free to contact me at 240-380-8022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to supercharge your sleep: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5vP4RdhSC4
Sleep Smarter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fu6lbDBEnlY
Sleep is More Important than Diet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Mtw3vBQYOg