SELF-CARE SERIES #3: The Power of Sleep

Regardless of what your specialism is within the creative industries, ‘good’ sleep – sleep that has sufficient depth and duration – is fundamental to both physical and mental health. Moreover, it is sleep of this quality that allows our brains to fully consolidate information and recharge within a 24-hour cycle. And while Western culture often minimises the need for sleep and by association glorifies the concept of continuous working, numerous scientific studies have shown that productivity and creativity increase when sleep has been prioritised.

To understand why a lack of sleep might affect us so significantly, it’s important to know that a typical 8-hour sleep session is divided into two halves. Non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep will usually dominate the first half and contains Stages 1-4 of increasing sleeping depth. Conversely, deep REM sleep occurs in 90-minute intervals within hours 5-8 of the cycle and is where we have the most the most restorative rest, vivid dreams and connect and consolidate information between thousands of . Because REM sleep occurs in the second half of the 8-hour sleep cycle, we lose much of the potential benefits of sleep when we shorten the time when it is the most beneficial.

Recent studies have shown that the brain needs deep sleep both before (to refresh) and after (to consolidate) learning for it to be optimised.  To understand how this works, the brain has two main storage areas for the intake and retention of information. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that will initially store information throughout the day such as remembering the names of people, where your car is parked, cell phone numbers, etc. Sleeping then helps us to process this information by enabling the thousands of neurons in the brain to make normal connections. The deepest stage of sleep produces brainwaves with bursts of electrical activity called spindles; this activity is switching memories from the ‘short-term’ storage of the hippocampus to a more ‘long-term’ storage of the brain called the cortex. Additionally, the brain employs an advanced ‘replay’ function while sleeping of things learned that day. Studies carried out that have listened to the brain activity of rats while they are learning their way around a maze showed that the ‘memory signature’ that they had acquired learning the route of the maze was replayed over and over in the brain while they were sleeping at a rate roughly 10 times of that when they were conscious. In this way, sleep consolidates new information on a deeper level and helps us to develop creative solutions that may have not been possible with the conscious mind.

In addition to memory and cognition, our physical body and its ability to fight various diseases is also comprised through sleep deprivation. With regards to the immune system, the body uses ‘natural killer cells’ to eliminate unwanted pathogens and keep us healthy. However, even one night of sleeping circa 4 hours will drop the number of functioning killer cells within the body by 70%. Poor sleep can also affect our actual DNA code over time, making our immune system weaker and increasing the chances of tumours or cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that the annual phenomenon of daylight savings time can have a significant impact across 1.6 billion people each year, with heart attacks increasing by 24% in the spring (when the body loses an hour of time) and a 21% reduction of heart attacks in the autumn (when an hour is gained). The impact of sleep deprivation on the body is so widely accepted that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified any night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen. The rule is a simple one: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

 

Strategies for improving sleep

If you are sleep deprived for any reason, the following are all things that can be done to improve the situation:

Regularity – when trying to achieve good sleep consistently, regularity is king. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (regardless of whether it’s a weekday or weekend) anchors your sleep and allows your body to become accustomed to a regular pattern.

Keep it cool – studies have shown that the deep sleep occurs more easily when the temperature of the room is at roughly 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, your body temperature needs to drop by roughly one degree for restorative sleep and keeping the environment cool will help this to happen.

Darkness – we all have an organ lodged in the brain called the pineal gland that identifies day and night by sensing both light and dark. The pineal gland creates a substance called melatonin which makes you feel sleepy. However, melatonin production is suppressed in light, even if this is the light from a small screen. Electricity encourages people to stay awake far longer than what their bodies would prefer, so make sure that you minimise the light from all sources when you are trying sleep.

Caffeine and alcohol – caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant with a half-life of 5-6 hours. This means that 50% of the effects of the caffeine are still in system after 5-6 hours and 25% of the effects are there for10-12 hours. So, a strong cup of coffee drunk in the afternoon might still be preventing you from falling asleep at 11 pm. Even if you fall asleep after having caffeine, it will reduce REM sleep and the sleep won’t be as helpful. Conversely, alcohol is in the sedative class of drugs; however, sedation isn’t sleep. Sedation (at its best) facilitates sleep by switching off the firing of brain cells in the cortex, but this is not natural or restorative sleep. Additionally, alcohol can create fragmented sleep by triggering the ‘fight or flight’ reaction in the brain, causing an agitated form of sleep which may include unsettling dreams or nightmares.

Have a wind-down routine – wherever possible, try to avoid doing things within the last hour of going to bed that might interrupt your sleep. Examples of this include being on your computer or other screens, drinking alcohol or caffeine, being around excessive lighting or cardiovascular exercise. Try to replace these with calming activities such as reading, meditation and being in a dimly lit environment.

Sleeping tablets – while these may seem like a very obvious solution, sleeping pills should be used only when all else fails and under the guidance of a physician. Sleeping pills are considered to a fairly blunt instrument for facilitating sleep in that they do not produce naturalistic sleep. Overuse can lead to dependence and a vicious cycle, so they should be used sparingly and with caution.

Get up – if you’re tossing and turning and unable to sleep after you’ve gone to bed, it is recommended by experts that you do not continue to lie there waiting for sleep to happen. Get out of bed and do something different, returning to bed only when you feel tired and ready for sleep. The reason for this is to break the cycle of your brain associating your bed with a place of wakefulness. If you are consistently working, reading, eating, etc. when you are in your bed, it could be that there has been a connection with your brain that you shouldn’t actually be sleeping there.

For clinical sleep issues such as long-term insomnia and sleep apnoea (the airway closing while sleeping, causing snoring and choking), the above strategies may all be helpful, but may require more significant intervention from a medical practitioner.

 

Summary

With regard to our physical and mental health, sleep is our superpower. And even though science supports this assertion, it is ironic that humans have the dubious distinction of being the only living things that purposely deprive themselves of this biological necessity. We spend roughly 1/3 of our lives asleep, or at least we used to. In the 1950’s humans managed to get 8 hours of sleep a night; this has now dropped to 6.5 hours on average. It is crucial to remember that sleep is not a lifestyle luxury; it is potentially the single most effective tool we have for resetting the health of our brain and body. Therefore, conscious investment into your sleeping will bring long-term benefits to your mental and physical health and simultaneously allow you learn and retain information more easily. There is much that you can do to take ownership of your sleep by adjusting your lifestyle; however, the advice and support of a qualified practitioner should not be forgotten if there are long-term issues.

 

Recommended Resources

Sleep is Your Superpower

Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss

Hacking Your Memory With Sleep

How Sleep Affects Your Emotions

How Caffeine and Alcohol Affect Your Sleep

6 Tips for Better Sleep