Sleep: The Health Catalyst

We’ve been conditioned to think of health and wellness as what we eat and how we move.

We’ve been conditioned to think of health and wellness as what we eat and how we move. In actual fact, at Edison we believe the biggest factor in how we feel is something very, very basic; It’s our sleep.

To understand the importance of sleep we need to first understand the science of sleep. What happens in our bodies when we get enough? What happens when we don’t? One of the leading voices in this field is Professor Matthew Walker.

His research examines the impact of sleep on human brain function in healthy and disease populations. To date, he has published over 100 scientific research studies.

Why we sleep?

While sleep is the least obvious aspect of health to change, it’s also one of the most profound. In his book “Why We Sleep” Professor looks at our biological need for sleep.

Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker also explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses.

How can sleep do all this?

Biologically quality sleep is needed for several key functions. It allows our bodies to  recover and regenerate, produces human growth hormone (HgH) and research has shown that without this recovery and regeneration, sleep deficit can contribute to to major illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

If you have PCOS or are type 2 diabetic the short term effects of sleep loss are shocking as well. One study conducted at the Cedars- Sinai Medical Centre found a single night of sleep deprivation can cause as much insulin resistance as six months on a high-fat, high sugar diet.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body does not use insulin efficiently to move glucose from the blood into the cells. It is a characteristic feature of both Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.

Understanding the natural scientific rhythm of sleep is important. How long you are asleep for is perhaps less important than the quality of sleep.
In a healthy adult with no sleep issues you will experience three stages of sleep. The drifting off or dozing stage, light sleep where your muscles relax and your core body temperature drops and finally deep, restorative sleep.

Sleep and the circadian rhythm

We each have an inbuilt body clock - or circadian rhythm. It is naturally regulated by light, dark and by changes in body functions every 24 hours. We may be unaware but our circadian rhythm is also affected by natural changes to body temperature and hormones such as melatonin and cortisol.

Critically, this means levels of sex and stress hormones have biphasic patterns - i.e a marked difference between day and night. If we don’t sleep in a similar pattern to our natural circadian rhythm we can throw these delicate hormones out of balance. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation. If you are a shift worker or a new parent obviously you’ll experience some disconnect with these natural rhythms. Sleeping where and when you can and using strategies to improve the quality of your sleep is still hugely beneficial.

Melatonin is especially important when it comes to bedtime. This hormone changes our core body temperature and lets us know when we’re tired. Melatonin is produced when it gets dark. This is why we naturally want to sleep longer in winter - that and the fact our beds are warm!

The main problem we see with sleep and circadian rhythms - especially in the corporate world - is our reliance on technology after dark. When we’re constantly exposed to bright lights from computer monitors and devices, our brains don’t register the need to start producing melatonin. Without melatonin many people find it increasingly difficult to fall asleep. Thrown in work stress, over reliance on caffeine - because of poor sleep - and intense rather than gentle exercise and it’s a vicious cycle.

So just how important is sleep?

Dallas Hartwig is the co-founder of the Whole 30 programme and author of the book “It Starts With Food.” Recently in a post on sleep, he re-evalutated scientific evidence and came to the conclusion “It no longer starts with food.

He acknowledges that it doesn’t mean nutrition isn’t important, rather; “I’m just becoming increasingly convinced that the bidirectional relationship between food and sleep (or movement and sleep; connection and sleep) is skewed heavily in favor of sleep as the more important driver.

“That’s because our sleep patterns anchor our circadian rhythms. And this essential relationship with the natural, rhythmical order of the Earth’s light/dark cycle affects everything about our health.”

From a practical perspective, we don’t need science to tell us this. When we are tired we are more likely to make poor food choices. We’re also less inclined to exercise even though gentle movement may energize us. We are also far more likely to feel stressed.

So. How much is enough?

As a rule of thumb, we recommend 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. However, the amount of optimum sleep also varies between individuals. As the study linking fewer than 6 hours a sleep too early death suggests, getting more than 7 hours is critical. Experiment with 7-9 hours of sleep per night to see where you feel best.  

Babies and children obviously need more sleep to help their bodies grow and develop those synaptic connections. Elite athletes also need extra snooze time to allow their bodies to fully recover and produce HgH

The key takeaway here is;  No-one can survive on minimal sleep, long-term. Research is ever evolving in this field and more and more data about the importance of sleep is emerging all the time. At Edison we know that quality sleep is a critical platform for building other healthy habits.

The Edison sleep strategies

  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. Ideally limit caffeine to 1 or 2 per day before midday. Alcohol might make you sleepy initially, but it disrupts your REM cycle causing more wakefulness as the night goes on.

  • Regular exercise can promote good sleep. But when you do it matters. Vigorous exercise right before bed can increase cortisol and suppress melatonin. Keep HIIT training, weights or cardio to the morning, late afternoon or early evening. More relaxing forms of exercise such as yin yoga or tai chi can help promote sleep as part of your evening routine.
  • Turn off all electrical devices by 9.30 pm. Aim to be in bed by 10pm. This may change slightly based on your biotype.
  • Lastly, associate your bed with sleep. Ensure your room is dark and not to warm. Invest in blackout curtains if you are near road side lamps or the early morning light wakes you.
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