What happens during sleep?
Much like the garbage trucks moving through the streets of a major metropolis at night, the brain takes advantage of this quieter period to clean up. This operation includes flushing out waste products from the countless chemical reactions taking place at any given time. The body proceeds through a number of stages as it winds down for the night including non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and REM sleep.
Other functions include:
- moving knowledge acquired during the day into long-term memory
- allowing the body to digest more effectively since nothing is being ingested for a period of time
- repairing tissues
- synthesizing proteins
- secreting growth hormone into the body
What are the impacts on health when the body is deprived of a good night's sleep?
From a physiologic point of view, not getting enough shut eye can put you at an increased risk of developing seizures, hypertension, brain fog, daytime sleepiness, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It can also accelerate the formation of tumours, increase your risk of cancer with studies placing those performing shift work at greater risk, and increase your overall risk of death.
A lack of sleep can wreak havoc on the body's cognitive functions by causing a decrease in response time, learning, short-term memory, concentration, and attention span.
Sleep deprived individuals also experience higher rates of poor mental health, mood disturbances, and psychiatric illness. The worst part about sleep deprivation is that it has a cumulative effect, so the more days missed, the greater the impacts on cognitive and physiological function.
How much sleep do you need by age?
During infancy, these little newborn humans need approximately 14-17 hours of sleep as their bodies rapidly develop. As humans age though, they typically require fewer and fewer hours of sleep as the metabolism and growth processes slow, with those over 65 aiming for 7-8 hours, but 6 may be appropriate.
In a nutshell:
- Babies sleep for about 17 hours each day.
- Older children only need 9 or 10 hours a night.
- Most adults need around 7-8 hours sleep each night.
- Older people need the same amount of sleep, but will often only have one period of deep sleep during the night, usually in the first 3 or 4 hours, after which they wake more easily.
Now, there are some individuals with a genetic mutation of DEC2 that require fewer hours of sleep. This gene is implicated in the ability to regulate circadian rhythms, those that control the cycle of wake and sleep, via a hormone called orexin. This hormone is greatly reduced in a condition known as narcolepsy where the individual has difficulty staying awake, falling into a slumber seemingly at random. In animal studies, when narcoleptic mice were injected with a gene stimulant to produce orexin, their sleep outcomes improve.
Can we catch up on sleep?
This question is a tale as old as time and touches upon something known as sleep debt.
When individuals fail to get the required amount of sleep, they develop a debt with the systems of the body. This can lead to involuntary microsleeps during the day, periods where the body forces you into an episode of sleep lasting from a fraction of a second to a few seconds. You may have experienced one of these yourself as you drive for an extended period of time, pushing yourself to stay awake before you nod off for a brief second, only to correct yourself in your lane.
Make no mistake, driving tired can be just as deadly as driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances and causes approximately 20% of motor vehicle accidents and 300 deaths annually.
What can be done to get the "right quality/quantity" of sleep?
An effective approach to sleep is developing a routine prior to bed. For some, this may involve a period of meditation, reading a book, unwinding with some gentle stretching, or sipping on a tea. It's also important to control what stimuli are associated with the bedroom. For instance, you only head to bed when the wave of tiredness hits, get out of bed the same time daily, and use the bed only for sex and sleep.
Is there anything I can take to help me stay asleep?
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is one of the most well-known sleep-aids in the world of herbal medicine. Its many bioactive components are responsible for its sedating effects, however the mechanism for its sedating properties still eludes researchers for now.
One study demonstrated that the herb was as effective as oxazepam, a common benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety and insomnia. Some researchers recognize the efficacy of valerian on its own, but others wanted to determine whether the sedative properties were more potent as a combination of valerian and hops (Humulus lupulus).
Hops on their own have been shown to reduce nocturnal neural activity and preserve the participants circadian rhythms. Before you go out buying a beer to have before bed, it's important to note that this study was done with non-alcoholic beer. Alcohol actually disturbs the cardiovascular relaxation that takes place prior to sleep.
Where can I get my hands on these?
Deep Sleep is a product that includes the herb and most importantly, is non-addictive unlike many pharmaceutical sleep aids. In a clinical study of Deep Sleep, 44 patients with insomnia experienced deeper levels of sleep and slept an additional 38 minutes compared to those given a placebo. When it comes to sleep, quality and quantity are important! A 12-hour sleep with no REM cycle can leave you feeling as tired as you were before your head hit the pillow.
So, is six hours enough?
If you have a DEC2 mutation, or you're approaching your senior years, you may be able to get away with 6 hours of sleep. Unfortunately for the average adult and younger, this amount of sleep will quickly catch up to you. The sleep debt discussed earlier will begin to accumulate and you will find your performance in daily life impaired through cognitive deficits and physical exhaustion.
Get a good night's sleep, keep the screens out of the bedroom, and take a swig of an herbal remedy to help you drift off and stay asleep.