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Sleep: The Key You Can’t Afford To Lose

What does stupid look like?

Let me give you an example from my own life.

There was a time when I was in graduate school that it felt like I had been cramming for tests every day for months without a break. Every day was a waterfall of information. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept more than a couple of hours in a row.

My undergraduate years were hard-core, pedal-to-the-metal, but throughout my graduate studies, I sometimes felt like I was going to run off the rails, trying to absorb a constant stream of new information.

It got to where coffee didn’t seem to have any effect. Exercise was just extra movement. My thoughts were consistently cloudy. More often than I care to admit, I would suddenly become aware that I couldn’t remember how I got from one place to another. I was fortunate I didn’t kill myself or someone else.

I was so driven, as if I were competing with every chiropractor who had ever practiced. I was determined to be great, the best of the best, but at what cost? I was young and maybe a little too confident.

Today, I look back on it and shake my head. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to wise up.

Why am I talking about this on “Wellness Wednesday?”

Last week, I brought up five things you can do to slow the aging process, but this week I want to go back and highlight one of them, because if you don’t do this one thing consistently, you can do everything else right and still ruin your health. It’s so crucial to good health, and yet most of us neglect it without much thought:

Sleep.

People usually think of nutrition and exercise when I say wellness, but if you’re not getting adequate sleep, you’re not healthy…period, end of story. Sleep is one of the foundational keys to good health, and like the key to your house, your office, and your car, you can’t afford to lose it.

What Is Adequate Sleep?

The jury is still out on this.

For thousands of years, people pretty much slept when it was dark, which meant they got anywhere from seven to ten hours of sleep a night (except for the poor folks who lived in the far north, where the sun never sets in June and never rises in December). There were no lights, only torches, so there were limited options for activity after dark.

Kerosene lamps allowed us to work later into the evening, or stay up and party into the wee hours of the morning. We could do more and we felt like we were improving our lives. Factories and bars could run later into the evening. Advances in electric lighting only served to extend how long we could stay up. Again, greater productivity, but at what cost?

Observing this trend, Benjamin Franklin advised his readers, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” But few besides him seemed to understand the health implications of inadequate sleep. The Industrial Revolution was busy using up workers in oppressive 12-hour and 16-hour shifts. It wasn’t until 1896, when research was published on the effects of sleep deprivation, that we began to gravitate to the concept of 8 hours of sleep each night. It became the conventional wisdom taught in health books and a foundational part of labor reform in America. People need to sleep as much as (if not more than) they need to eat.

Now, with our 24-hour culture of third shifts and all-night shopping at Walmart, sleep balance is becoming a bigger issue as people try to fit sleep into their schedules in unnatural times and circumstances (more on that in a bit).

Part of the problem of setting a hard standard is that we need different amounts of sleep at different stages of life: infants sleep about 15 hours a day, teens need about 9 hours a day (but we get them up at 6:00 am to get to school by 7:00?), and retirees need a little less – some of my older patients say they thrive on five or six hours a night.

On average, 8 hours of sleep a night is a pretty good rule of thumb for most adults, but most of us can probably get away with 7 hours of sleep if we need to. What you don’t want to do is consistently burn the candle at both ends like I did in school.

The Importance of Circadian Rhythms

You can eat right, exercise, drink plenty of water, and still get sick and even die prematurely if you neglect regular sleep. But I want to drill down even further here to some specific considerations regarding sleep.

Our bodies thrive on routines, patterns, and schedules. The more consistent we are in our daily habits, the better health we experience. Conversely, the less consistent our life rhythms, the harder our bodies fight to stay in balance. That’s why this topic is so central to total wellness.

More than getting seven hours of sleep every day, the key according to neuroscientists, wellness coaches, and business professionals, is to get those seven hours at the same time every day. The most productive, successful people I know swear by their consistent sleep patterns as a key to their maximized productivity. Children especially thrive when they have consistent bedtimes, wakeup times, mealtimes, and potty times, but all of us benefit from this kind of consistency. If your body is accustomed to eating at a specific time every day and you’ve gotten off schedule once, you know what I’m talking about.

No amount of sleeping in on Saturdays can make up for the disruption to your body’s natural rhythm if you jerk your sleep schedule around every night. Your body cries out for consistency.

What Sleep Deprivation Will Cost You

It’s possible to trade your health for wealth, and it’s a terrible deal. Pulling all-nighters at work is one of those things that happens sometimes, but it’s an extremely destructive habit to get into. If you’re burning the candle at both ends to make a buck, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s important to realize that sleep deprivation actually sabotages your work:

  • It kills your attention to detail.
  • It causes you to make mistakes.
  • It causes you to forget important information.
  • It clouds your memory.
  • It dries up your creativity.
  • It hampers your ability to communicate clearly.
  • It ruins your mood and leaves you irritable.
  • It leads to misunderstandings.
  • It accelerates your heart rate.
  • It leaves your exposed to viruses and other sicknesses.
  • It can lead to hallucinations.
  • It will eventually put you in the hospital, the grave, or the unemployment office.

Some of the worst air, train, marine, safety, and traffic accidents in American history were the result of someone being asleep at the wheel.

Students who binge study all night are actually hampering their learning by damaging brain cells and interfering with their bodies’ natural chemical balance. You will spend your sixties (and possibly your fifties) in doctors’ offices, if not your thirties. It is entirely possible for a 25-year-old to have a heart attack and die, if they aren’t getting enough sleep.

So not worth it.

Sleep deprivation will eventually make you fat, sick, and depressed eventually. This isn’t my opinion, the science is incontrovertible. Plus, I can speak from my own experience (and so can you, if you’re honest with yourself). Is what you are working on (or worrying about) worth all that?

I’ll answer that for you: no.

Maximize Your Sleeping Hours

There are things you can do to maximize the effectiveness of the time you spend sleeping (and thus, your health):

Consistent

Set a consistent bedtime and stick to it (see above). 

You can make up for lost sleep by sleeping in for a couple of hours once in a while, but not as a habit. If you’re losing two or more hours of sleep every single night, sleeping all day Saturday will not undo the damage. You need to fix your schedule first. If work keeps you up all day and all night, consider a new career. It’s that serious. If your life is so out of control that you aren’t getting enough sleep, it might be time to take a step back and evaluate what is keeping you so busy and deal with it.

Unplugged

Shut off electronic devices at least one hour before going to bed (cellphone, tablet, laptop, TV, etc.) to give your brain and eyes time to relax.

Dark

Keep your bedroom as dark as possible – install blackout curtains like hotels use – because darkness triggers the brain that it’s time to sleep (conversely, bright lights during the day signal your brain that it’s awake time, which is why this is super important if you work overnights).

Cool

Keep your room temperature between 54 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (a hot bath about 90 minutes before bed will warm up your core, and the sudden drop in temperature when you come out of the water will trigger your brain that it’s time to sleep).

Calm

Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs at night – at least four or five hours before you go to bed. It’s a good idea to limit these all day, but especially before bed. Passing out may seem like sleep, but your body doesn’t go through its shutdown cycles properly.

Inactive

Physical activity during the day (not right before bed) promotes better sleep at night. Exercise before bed activates all the wrong neurotransmitters, raises your body temperature, and assures you of a poor night’s sleep.

Undefiled

Keep work out of your sleep space; use your bed only for sleep (and intimacy, if you’re married).

Peaceful

Unresolved stress in your mind will hamper your sleep and leave you at a stark disadvantage the next day. “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath” is not only a good marriage advice, it’s also good health and career advice.

Sleep, Interrupted

Interrupted sleep is like getting no sleep at all, but worse. You think you’ve slept because you were in bed all night, but your cerebral cortex, your nervous system, your heart, your pancreas, and your endocrine system all think you’ve been working all night. You’re a walking time bomb, getting ready to lash out at someone, forget something important, or turn into oncoming traffic.

Your brain needs sleep as much as your body does. Laying still is not sleep. Your brain needs to go through several levels of decompression through the night.

Needs. It’s not optional.

Get Off The Rocket

In our super-charged, high-intensity, high-speed culture, people neglect their sleep to pursue some vision they have and it ruins their health. Then, they can’t figure out why they are sick. I don’t know about you, but I would rather live a longer, satisfying life with a little less money than drive myself into the grave for an extra trinket. At the same time, I think you will find that, if you will get your life in balance, your income will go up. There are laws that govern the financial realm that no one ever seems to talk about, and one of them has to do with balance and priorities. But I’ll talk about that tomorrow. That’s a topic for “Think Right Thursday,” and it’s going to be a good one. I can already feel it.

If you’ve dealt with health issues caused by sleep deprivation, I’d love to hear what you did to get your sleep back in balance. Share your story in the comments on Facebook. If you’re in the Naples area, I would love to have the opportunity to get to know you. I invite you to visit my office behind Sports Authority on Pine Ridge Road.

If this article was helpful to you, it probably will be helpful to someone you know. Sleep is one of those topics that could literally save someone’s life. We all know someone who could use a friendly reminder about the importance of sleep. I know I needed to hear it. Take a few seconds and share this on your favorite social media channel. Let’s work together to help our nation get back to good health, one friend at a time.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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