Who is still feeling a little sluggish after losing one hour of sleep from Spring forward? We eat clean and fresh and get physical activity into our lives, but what about our sleep? My guest blogger Karen Broda explains why sleep is a vital piece of our wellness puzzle.
My new found relationship with sleep
A few years ago I was always exhausted in the evenings, no energy to do much of anything after working all day. I figured this was just due to tough 6am workouts followed by a day of work. But then the exhaustion every night led to a short temper, a consistently foggy mind, and half-a$$ed workouts (even on weekends)! I decided to start ignoring my alarm wake “naturally”, waking up when my body was ready to get up, not by blaring alarm. My new wake-up time started to become 7am (over an hour later!) yet I still managed to fit in my daily workout, work a full day, plus have the time and energy to enjoy my evenings (and weekends!). I was more enjoyable to be around, I could easily smile all day long, and my brain became sharp again which led to a job promotion (yippee!). Was this emotional, fitness, and career success really the result of a little extra sleep each day?
On average the optimal length of sleep is 7-9 hours (1), meaning actual sleep not, “lying in your bed contemplating the world’s problems for an hour” type of sleep. Now I’m sure you’re thinking, “7-9 hours of sleep is great, but I CAN operate just fine on 6 hours of sleep. I never feel sleepy and I am doing quite well for myself (I’m a smart gal!)”. Well consider this, only about 1% of the population can function properly with less than 6 hours of sleep (these people generally need 4-5 hours) (1). Maybe you’re not so special…
The best way to find out how much sleep you actually need is to do what I stumbled upon, the natural sleep experiment. Go to bed when you’re tired and wake up when you feel rested (do not use an alarm clock!). And if you wake-up at 3am but don’t feel rested, go back to sleep until you do. You may be surprised that your optimal length is not 6 or even 7 hours, but rather 8 or 9. I now average 8.5 hours of sleep each night meaning I’m lying in bed for 9 hours.
So what if you consistently get less sleep than you’re optimal amount but you can function fine and never feel that sleepy…or nothing a cup of coffee can’t fix! Is it really that bad? Actually it can be….
Can you really get by on less sleep?
In a 2003 sleep study, participants had to sleep for a designated amount of time each night for 14 days. One group had to sleep for 4 hours, the second group for 6 hours, the third group for 8 hours, and the fourth group couldn’t sleep at all (but for 3 nights only). The results were intriguing!
They found that participants who slept under 8 hours per night (the 4 and 6 hour groups) performed considerably worse on cognitive tests than those who slept for the 8 hours. And these test results were equivalent to the results of the group that had no sleep for 2 nights! What’s scarier is that moderate sleep restriction (i.e. any amount under your optimal amount) can impair your neuro-behavioral function that makes you feel “sleepy”. In other words, your body and mind are tired and performing at a poorer level, yet you don’t feel sleepy. (2)
As a smart and fitness-focused lady, if you’re not able to operate at your full mental capacity at work nor your full energy levels in the gym, think of how much opportunity you’re missing out on?
In another study run in a similar fashion, they found the participants that had 7 hours of sleep or less also exhibited this cognitive decline. However after a few days of less than optimal sleep this decline stabilized. This means that yes, your body does attempt to adjust to the restricted sleep but it does so at a lower cognitive level; a new “normal” (3). This may explain why you feel “normal” after a few nights of little sleep but in fact you are functioning at a lower cognitive level! You may not even notice this performance change since the effects are gradual over a few days, plus your brain may suppress that “sleepy” or tired feeling. Sounds pretty terrible to me.
But wait, there’s more!
In that same study they found that the sleep deprived group (5 and 7 hours of sleep per night) still had not recovered to full brain operational capacity after 3 nights of normal sleep (8 hours). (3). So no, you can’t just “catch up on sleep” on the weekends, it’ll take you longer than 3 days to get back to your best brainy-self. And another downside to restricting sleep, you may even feel physically ill (I know I do!) since sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as a disease or physical stress does (4).
Aside from not operating at your sharpest, short-term sleep deprivation (6 hours and less per night) also impairs your judgment, makes you retain fat, and is harder for your body to repair itself after a workout. And in the long term? Your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia are significantly greater (6). Maybe sleep is the answer to your stalled fitness success…
Increased Sleep= Increased Productivity
Phew! All of those consequences just for skipping out on precious, lovely sleep. I hope you now realize just how bad sacrificing your sleep really is. Not just does it affect your health but also your daily performance at work and life. Let’s move on to the more positive stuff, can we actually get more done in a day whilst getting more sleep? I know it worked for me, but let’s look at some science behind it.
• Improved Problem Solving
Aside from letting our bodies and brains recover from the day, sleep also helps us create new brain cells (4) and consolidate and make connections across the info we received during the day (7). With a refreshed brain you can draw on those creative juices and provide a business solution to impress your boss. Or perhaps you’re struggling with a friend-dilemma? Get a good night’s sleep and overnight your brain can make the connections it needs to in order to solve it!
• Move and Think Quicker
In those previous studies it was also found that restricted sleep resulted in slower reaction time (3). If you get less than 7 hours of sleep you’re operating at a lower cognitive level and have a slower reaction time, so think how quickly your body and brain will move when you’re well rested! Feeling like you’ve hit a plateau in the gym? That additional sleep can help you move through those plyo-exercises quicker and sharper meaning agility and strength improvement! Or perhaps you have a never-ending “to do” list for the day, but at your cognitive-best your brain will help you conquer that list in the smartest and most efficient way! I know this works for me, I now have the energy and brain power to kill my workouts, strategize and complete my to-do list, and some spare time for Netflix!
• Happier mood
This point is my fav, I don’t think we need scientific studies (although there is some) to figure out that more sleep equals a better mood. And we know happiness leads to so many positive outcomes in life (given the amount of books written on happiness as of late)!
One study found that getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night results in higher self-esteem and optimism. (9) We know confidence is needed to succeed in business, so what better way to build that than with high self-esteem! I know my happy demeanor at work (and life) definitely played a role in me getting that job promotion. Investing in sleep is investing in your happiness and success.
How can we sleep more to be uber-productive, happy, and fit?
Not getting enough sleep is terrible but getting those additional hours of sleep is easier said than done. So where do we start? Start simply, start to make sleep a priority in your life. If I don’t get enough sleep my whole day is affected; lower energy, less focus, grumpier mood (all the things we touched on!). So I will purposely sleep-in an extra 30-60 minutes if I feel I need it, because an extra 60 minutes is a small sacrifice compared to an entire day of low productivity and energy.
At the start you may need to make a bit of sacrifice in order to prioritize sleep. For me, I had to rearrange my schedule slightly, such as moving my morning workout to the lunch hour so I could get extra zzz’s in the morning. It’ll be a bit of a pain at first but you’ll soon get into a groove and getting 7-9 hours will become a breeze!
A good thing to remember is to not get too caught up with the “numbers”. Just because the average needs 7-9 hours doesn’t mean you need that exact amount every night. Some nights you may need more sleep if it was a mentally or physically taxing day. I can sleep for 9.5-10 hours after a few days of tough workouts and mental stress.
Sleep is important for the short and long term. Not only does it benefit your health but it also allows you to perform at your optimal level, because you want to see success in every area of your life, right??
Meet the writer:
Karen knows getting fit isn’t just about the hard work in the kitchen and the gym but also having a bullet-proof mind. Interested in more ways to strengthen your mind (and body)? Check out her site, StrongandSmart. She shares even more valuable bits of info to her Strong and Smart crew (free to sign-up!).
IDFA Canada Bikini Pro, and 3-time, top 5 finisher with INBF Canada
(6) From http://www.chalenejohnson.com/podcasts/sleep-deprivation-brain-damage-and-you/
(7) The Idiot Brain – Dean Burnett (2016)