Reversing Chronic Sleep Deprivation?
We have heard it a million times, likely starting in childhood, it is essential that we get 6-8 hours of sleep a night. You were probably never told why, and research is starting to find that there are huge health benefits to a full nights rest. We aren't born with manuals on how to take care of ourselves and most of us are currently in the habit of putting our bodies into a state of partial sleep deprivation. We may push our bedtimes later to get more done in our day and it's hard to see the negative impact since a cup of coffee can get us through any level of sleep deficit. Sleep deprivation can have some life-altering consequences and cultivating a successful sleep routine is one of the key aspects of experiencing better health. Below are just a few of the many effects of adequate sleep as well as sleep deprivation on our health. I will then expain ways in which we can reverse the biological effects of sleep deprivation.
1) Immune boosting effects - Did you know that when we sleep our bodies release powerful antioxidant chemicals to repair our tissues and detect and kill cancerous cells? This is the powerful "ME" time for our bodies to "deep clean". Still skeptial? Check out this sudy linking sleep deprivation to breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. Another study exploring the mechanism behind the anti-cancer effects of sleep.
2) Reproductive health - Melatonin is the sleep hormone that is released as the sun sets and night sets in. It encourages our bodies to shift into a quiet and relaxed state as we shift into sleep. It's also involved in supporting reproductive health and has specifically found to be beneficial for ovarian health, especially in supporting ovary function and egg quality. For men, sleep deprivation can cause lower levels of testosterone may can impact confidence, productivity and stamina after just one week!
3) Metabolic boost - Sleep deprivation affects our metabolism in so many ways, I could dedicate an entire blog on the topic and blog for 5 years without even touching the tip of the iceberg! To summarize: a reduction in sleep can cause difficulties in managing our blood sugar levels in as short as a weeks time! This could put people at risk for developing diabetes. Where you find diabetes you'll also find cardiovascular diseases and obesity. These diseases put people on the fast track to developing high blood pressure, plaque build up in the arteries, heart disease and stroke. The research behind cardiovascular risk and obesity and sleep deprivation overwhelmingly points to the importance of a full nights rest.
4) Psychological health - Sleep deprivation causes elevations in the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day. Cortisol has been implicated in difficulties with regulating mood, especially in the face of stress. Sleep deprivation can also reduce our attention span, impact our working memory (multitasking), lower our performance and impact decision making!
Moderate sleep deprivation has also been found to produce impairments in cognitive and motor performance that is equivalent to alcohol intoxication!
So what next? Is there a way to reverse these effects of sleep deprivation? Luckily- yes!
We can reverse a lot of the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Our bodies are incredibly flexible and have the ability to recover from prolonged periods of emotional and physical stressors. In the above exmples, you are able to see that our bodies are very resilient; losing a couple of nights of sleep won't lead to death. It'll just alter functioning and make us more susceptible to diseases that we otherwise wouldn't be. What many people don't know is that you can actually "catch-up" on sleep and here's how! If you have a few weeks or even months where you're living in "sleep debt" you can actually begin making "sleep deposits" into your health account.
1) Sleep in when you can! - If you were like me, you were probably told that sleeping in on the weekends is bad and could impact your sleep cycle during the week. What researchers are finding is that you can actually catch up on sleep debt by getting a few extra hours of sleep on days that you can sleep in. On the weekends or mornings where you don't have to be anywhere early, ditch the alarm clock and let yourself sleep for as long as your body needs. If you find that you wake at 6-7 naturally, try your best to ease your body back into a few more hours of sleep. Your body will thank you for it later.
2) Create a "sleep space" - Talk to your loved ones about your goal to pay off your "sleep debt" and start investing in your health account. If your loved ones are the people waking you up early see if you can create a separate space for yourself to sleep-in, without interruption, a few mornings out of the week.
3) Go on a "sleep detox" - A sleep detox is where people pull back on using as as many stimulants like caffeine that can keep us from understanding just how tired our bodies actually are. It can also keep people from experiencing the full deep sleep that their bodies need at nighttime. For some, this may mean taking a "staycation" where they take time off work and away from caffeine and dedicate a few days-weeks sleeping early and getting 8-12 hours of sleep based on their bodies needs.
4) Identify what keeps you from sleep - I encourage my patients to set a "get in bed by" goal, usually around 930. If people find that they still inevitably push their bedtime later and later, I recommend writing down the activities that they sacrifice sleep for. Reflecting on what keeps us from sleep helps us to understand what activities and parts of our lives we can't go a day without. For some it may be watching TV, playing video games, connecting with a loved one, pursuing a hobby or career. If this happens, take note: it probably means that you're feeling unsatisfied with the current ways in which you're spending your waking hours. Try to prioritize these important activities for earlier in the evening, or create a schedule to get these activities in for a decent amount of time at least three days a week. That way your brain knows that you'll get these activities in without needing to withdraw from your sleep account.
"When you go to bed, it is important to feel as if you did everything you wanted and needed to do that day. It is okay and normal to feel as if you didn't, Just plan to make a deposit into your sleep account tonight to invest into your future."
4) Assess your overall sleep-wake balance - Think back to your early childhood and teen years. What was sleep like for you then? Did you have difficulty with winding down and falling asleep or staying asleep? Did your home feel like a safe place to sleep? What about in your college years leading into your 30's? If you found that you've been in overall sleep "debt" for a large portion of your life, it's possible that your stressed out "sympathetic" part of your nervous system has been steering the wheel throughout your life. If you're one of these people, talk to your doctor, friends or family about healthy ways in which they unwind.
5) Treat yourself to some sleep accessories - Sometimes going all out and getting some sleep enhancing tools can help to fully commit to a new health habit. Some things that I recommend to my patients include:
Sleep Cycle Smartphone App - This app is for anyone who likes to see quantitative results. It tracks quality of sleep, the time spent in different phases of sleep and wakes you up when you're in your lightest phase of sleep.
Calming herbal teas and baths - Go to your local healthfood store and find aromas or tea blends that calm and soothe you. Every individual is unique, lavendar and chamomile are not for everyone.
White noise machines or ear plugs - Especially helpful if you've got dogs, cats or a snoring family member who keeps you awake ;)
Night time guided meditations - progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness and loving kindness meditations are just a few of the fantastic tools out there. Search on YouTube, the InsightTimer app, or google to find free tools to help you.
If your difficulty with sleeping persists I encourage you to schedule a consultation with a health expert. Naturopathic doctors are experts in integrative medicine and are often able to assess whether your insomnia may be related to nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, lifestyle patterns or a related medical condition. They'll help you connect your symptoms to what your body needs and provide you with easy solutions to experience the benefits of sleep.
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes ONly. Talk with a licensed health professional before making any changes to your health routine.