Updated: Nov 24, 2020
It’s 02:53 AM and there is an unusually calm period that seems to be occurring during this night shift. My thoughts, expectedly, now turn to sleep.
It feels so good to get restorative, restful, rejuvenative sleep, but it takes so frustratingly long to get it. I used to think of it as a luxury that I might acquire later in life, like having a big house or fast car. Something, that I could replace with some coffee-- or if that wasn’t enough, then even more coffee. It rarely seemed like something important until certain moments, like nearly swerving off the road after having fallen asleep at the wheel. Then, suddenly, it would take on a great, but transient importance.
What a fool I have been to think of it like this. It wasn’t long ago that I realized the massive importance of regular sleep. It is not a waste of time. It is as necessary as food; one can survive without it, but not for long. One way to think of it, is to reflect on the fact that we, and all other animals, have evolved to keep sleep in our daily cycles. Shouldn’t that have been selected out over the last few million years? Sleep is incredibly dangerous, it would seem. We are totally and completely vulnerable while we are unconscious; unaware of our surroundings, and in certain phases completely paralyzed. What a perfect time for a lion to eat us. Additionally, we can’t do anything productive during this phase of the day. We can’t build shelter, tend fire, hunt, gather, or procreate. We just lay there like a lazy cat meme. Yet, here we are in 2019 with all our advanced knowledge and pharmaceuticals and we still require 33% of entire lives to be spent doing this activity…. It has got to be important.
Indeed, sleep is indispensable to the proper functioning and continuation of our lives. Going without sleep for too long, can kill us. Think about this. Drowsy driving is responsible for more auto accident deaths that alcohol. The deprivation of sleep is commonly used in torture. The Guinness World Record people will no longer let anyone try to set a sleep deprivation record because of safety concerns, but it will let a person hold 13 rattlesnakes in their mouth.
Let me just bullet point a few of the things are bodies need sleep for:
Controlling hunger and increasing satiety
Maintaining body temperature while exercising
Increasing stamina and cardiovascular recovery
Improving muscle building
Improving skill learning, like in sports or needlepoint
Preventing cancer through multiple mechanisms
Lowering anxiety and processing daily emotions
Improving insulin sensitivity
Strengthening and maintaining the immune system
Conversely, not enough sleep is associated with
Cancers like breast, prostate, colorectal, endometrial, AML
Poor decision making
Slower response times
And obviously, fatigue
Sleep even works on a microscopic, molecular, scale. It works on our direct genetic code. There was a study in Nature Communications, by Zada et al, where they took zebrafish in a larval stage and tagged the chromosomes with markers that could be physically seen in the individual neurons they were examining. They could visually see that when sleep took hold there was a significant increase in the motion of the chromosomes, particularly in repairing damage that had been done during the wakeful period. DNA damage, or the skewed expression of DNA due to damage, greatly increases the chance of many illnesses. To underline that, Moller-Levet et al, took a group of people and compared them to themselves in a rested, vs a sleep deprived, state. The degree of sleep deprivation they looked at, was about 6 hours per night for 1 week. Do you know anyone that has been doing 6 hours per night for longer than a week – I certainly do. They found that the expression of 711 of the genes they were looking at were all screwed up. Some were upregulated, some down regulated. Additionally, roughly 400 genes became unlinked from their usual day-night cycle. All these genes were those that influence the immune system, inflammation, metabolism, and even the expression of other genes. In general, sleep deprivation yields less good stuff and more bad stuff. These leads right into demonstrations in
the literature showing in humans that sleep deprivation will make the lining of the blood vessels
malfunction to the point where they will not dilate as they should, meaning decreased blood flow to vital organs, like the heart. Then there are other studies showing that one night of sleep deprivation, and especially more than one night, will lead to increased insulin resistance meaning increased risk for diabetes. This isn’t even scratching the surface of how sleep cares for us. There are so many various mechanisms at play during sleep that are responsible for maintaining our physical, emotional, mental, selves that it is truly impressive.
When I first learned what sleep was needed for, I had feeling of shock, irresponsibility, and almost of futility. I had been intentionally trying to minimize my sleep for years. I was thinking of sleep as a bank where we can take out a little debt for a few nights, and then pay it back later by occasionally sleeping in. In truth, we cannot. If we lose sleep one night, there’s no making it up later – not even close to the degree that we need it to be. We are losing out on most of the necessary mechanisms for that time. We get one chance, every day, to optimize and gain all that sleep has to offer us. Even if we have forced insomnia upon ourselves, it is not too late to change and reap the benefits.
We may occasionally miss it, but every day we get the wonderful opportunity to try again.
If you feel that you could benefit from better sleep and you haven’t been able to accomplish it on your own, we at Beyond Medicine can help with that.
One sleep improvement tip before you go: Make the 2 hours before bedtime a screen free time. Every little bit towards those 2 hours helps. Our brains evolved with only one light source to govern our sleep-wake cycle – the sun. Now our homes and lives are full of suns in the forms of light bulbs and screens. It’s very confusing. If that’s not enough, there’s always one thing that makes me yawn: Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Softly Book.
Buxton, O. M., et al. “Sleep Restriction for 1 Week Reduces Insulin Sensitivity in Healthy Men.”
Diabetes, vol. 59, no. 9, 2010, pp. 2126–2133., doi:10.2337/db09-0699.
Calvin, Andrew D., et al. “Experimental Sleep Restriction Causes Endothelial Dysfunction in
Healthy Humans.” Journal of the American Heart Association, vol. 3, no. 6, 2014,
Donga, Esther, et al. “A Single Night of Partial Sleep Deprivation Induces Insulin Resistance in
Multiple Metabolic Pathways in Healthy Subjects.” Endocrinology, vol. 151, no. 5, 2010,
pp. 2399–2399., doi:10.1210/endo.151.5.9998.
Moller-Levet, C. S., et al. “Effects of Insufficient Sleep on Circadian Rhythmicity and
Expression Amplitude of the Human Blood Transcriptome.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 12, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1217154110.
Walker, Matthew P. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner, an
Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2018.
Zada, D., et al. “Sleep Increases Chromosome Dynamics to Enable Reduction of Accumulating
DNA Damage in Single Neurons.” Nature Communications, vol. 10, no. 1, 2019, p. 895.,