We spend about a third of our lives asleep, but very little is known about this mysterious
activity. Nature would not dedicate such a large percentage of our life to something that is not
somehow immensely important. The more science discovers about sleep, the more obvious it
becomes that it is the foundation on which our physical, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing is
based. Unfortunately, modern culture has created a silent sleepless epidemic that is having a
tremendous effect on our health and quality of life. While it has been consistently shown that
between seven to nine hours of sleep per night is required for optimal health, it is estimated
that about half of all Americans are not getting the recommended amount. This has a
significant impact on our health.
The processes that accompany normal waking consciousness are quite literally
damaging to the brain, and sleep offers a restorative function. During sleep, the brain’s
“cleaning” system is activated, which removes many metabolic toxins built up during the day.
Insufficient disposal of these toxins has been shown to increase our susceptibility to numerous
serious health conditions. One striking example of such a toxin is called beta amyloid, too much
of which is present in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, lower amounts
of sleep throughout life increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in older age.
Furthermore, research has repeatedly shown that insufficient sleep is strongly linked to worse
physical health outcomes, including increased risk of cancer, obesity, poor cardiovascular
health, and reduced functioning of the immune system. On the other hand, a higher amount of
sleep directly correlates with better muscle strength, running speed, balance, and decreased
risk of injury. Cognitively, sleep helps the brain encode and consolidate learned information,
improve recall, and make new neuronal connections for better problem solving.
So, what can we do to improve our sleep? Below are a few suggestions that have been
shown to improve the quantity and quality of sleep: 1) minimize the use of alcohol and
marijuana, which have been shown to suppress a restorative stage of sleep called REM (rapid
eye movement); 2) refrain from using any devices with a screen prior to bed, which can delay
the release of natural sleep hormones by up to three hours; 3) go to bed and wake up around
the same time each day; 4) keep your bedroom as dark as possible and switch off half the lights
in the house closer to bedtime; 5) keep your room cool, as the body actually needs to drop its
temperature by one to two degrees in order to fall asleep (but keep your hands and feet warm);
and 6) don’t go to sleep too full or too hungry. For more information, check out the book by a
renowned sleep expert, Dr. Matthew Walker, called Why We Sleep.
— Julia Novitski, Ph.D.