Several times a week, I am approached by someone asking for ways to improve their sleep.
Perhaps my history as a medical doctor encourages people to think I would be an expert on the matter. And this would be entirely inaccurate. Everything I now know comes from my recent education and learning which stems from my desperation to help my own health!
Little do people know that it wasn't until recently that I finally accepted that sleep was, in fact, important. I am of a certain age where, about 20 years ago, sleep was considered, as more of a ‘nice to have’. A good idea (for some people but not people like me!). In some circles (like medical doctors, bankers, lawyers and the like) we saw sleep as perhaps, ‘soft’. For me, especially through medical school, as a junior doctor, and then in my finance career, sleep was far down the list of my priorities. And far down the list of the priorities of most of my colleagues.
In many professions, there was (and unfortunately still is in places), no room for getting a solid sleep cycle in place. Nowadays, unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know sleep is essential to our functioning and performance. The evidence is overwhelming that having the right quality and quantity of sleep is critical.
I will still regularly meet people who tell me they only need 4-5 hours a night. But from what I have seen and heard from the world’s leading sleep experts; this is simply not the case.
I learned this the hard way:
For very many years, I managed only a few hours of sleep a night. I've shared before in my videos and in this blog, that I have had my struggles with my mental and my physical health.
A few years ago, I was in hospital and the unlucky nurse who was looking after me, would check on me frequently throughout the night, by (rather unhelpfully) shining her little flashlight in my eyes. Every time she came in, she would notice that I was always awake. She began to give me mini midnight lectures on the importance of sleep.
“Why do you think you are special that you don't need sleep? All the animals on the earth need to sleep. So, what makes you different?”
I tried to magic up an animal that did not need sleep, and I failed miserably. But during that time, I got to know this nurse well, and I began to soften and accept that she was right. I did need to start to address my long-standing issues with my sleep.
Having finally allowed myself the chance to have regular and proper sleep, I can vouch that it is probably one of the most important components to my own performance, growth, and development both professionally and personally.
In part 1 of this blog, I will share with you some of the science behind sleep and what it really does to benefit brain and body. In part 2 I will share top tips and some big mistakes that I see people make, along with practical steps that you can take away to apply to your sleep immediately.
Adverse impact of too little or poor-quality sleep:
I am not going to harp on this for too long, but having too little sleep is detrimental on many levels.
If you are consistently getting under six hours of sleep a night, it will cause you harm: from an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune system, blood sugar disruption etc., no systems are exempt. From a mental health perspective: depression, anxiety, and the inability to regulate your emotions well are all commonly seen. And in fact, for some people not sleeping well can cause overeating.
There is a reason the Guinness Book of Records put a stop to people making attempts to break sleep deprivation records. If you consider what they do allow, that should tell you something!
There is a reason that Navy SEALS are sleep deprived in their training.
One of the problems with sleep deprivation is when you're sleep deprived, you don't know how deprived you are. A little bit like having too much to drink. You have one or two drinks, you ‘feel fine’, but you don't realize that your reflexes are in fact impaired.
One of the things I really want to do emphasize is saying, ‘I only need four or five hours of sleep a night,’ is no longer a badge of honor.
So, as the nurse who used to look after me at night had said, all animals do sleep.
Sleep has been with us a long time:
Even unicellular organisms have active and passive states depending on the dark light cycle of the planet. Sleep predates all vertebrate life, so sleep is something that has been with us for a very long time, and there's a reason for it.
If you think about it, we have evolved hugely over the years, yet sleep is not something that over time we seem to need less of. And that must be because it is important. It is important to both brain and body.
From the brain's point of view: essential functions like learning, memory, making logical decisions and choices, behaviors, judgments, regulating our emotions, and of course our mood. When we look at the body, we are looking at an impact on all our organs: immune system, hormone system, gastrointestinal tract, metabolic system, cardiovascular system etc.
You can't get away from it. Sleep impacts everything, it impacts our entire being.
Professor Matt Walker, one of the world’s leading sleep experts wrote a book I highly recommend called, Why We Sleep.
He says that sleep is a prescription that we get to fill out every single 24 hours. It is a repeat prescription that we can take and use that will help and benefit our brain and body.
A key benefit that should interest all you high achievers is…..learning:
Sleep replenishes our ability to learn and to keep learning. When you wake, you have a refreshed capacity to continue to learn. It is as if, while you sleep, the ‘files’ you have been working on are safely stored. Newly acquired information is protected in your memory.
In other words, memories are moved from a ‘short-term’ storage into ‘long-term’ storage while you sleep.
Naps, working through the night, and learning:
Although daytime naps can be problematic, if too long or too late, they can be beneficial for consolidating memory, for new learning. A short, well-timed nap in the afternoon may help replenish your capacity for further learning.
If you are working hard and studying, one mistake I see so often (and have been guilty of myself) is to intuitively feel the best decision is to keep on working through the night to cover as much information and content as you can.
But in fact, the opposite is true. It would be far better for you to stop early enough and get good quality sleep so you can consolidate your new learning and when you wake up, be refreshed with new learning capabilities.
Other brain benefits from good sleep:
Motor skills and improved coordination are key here.
You may have noticed if you've practiced something that requires specific motor skills, e.g. practicing a tricky passage on a musical instrument, that after a good night of sleep, when you wake up, you notice you can perform that tricky passage far better than while you were practicing it the night before. The learning from the repetitions the day before is embedded down while sleeping.
Sleep and creativity:
And lastly, when it comes to the brain, one of the other important benefits of sleep is around creativity. While we are sleeping, the brain tests out different stores of information and links up various areas. Although this is not an overly scientific explanation, what I want to drive home is that when we sleep our brain makes these various connections, and it is through these connections our creativity is enhanced.
In summary, sleep is a fundamental part to elevating our human performance. Join me next week for Part 2, where we will look at practical ways we can make changes to improve our quality and quantity of sleep.