How much sleep do you need?
Sleep is one of the most important contributors to health and performance. But our culture incentivizes productivity and work over rest, and so it’s also one of the most overlooked.
As a whole, we grossly underestimate our need for sleep.
Why does sleep matter?
Not getting enough sleep pretty much leads to an decrease in all health measures.
Studies show that athletes have diminished performance with less sleep.
Our immune systems don’t work as well and we’re more susceptible to viral infections.
People who average fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night have a 48% greater chance of a heart attack, and four times greater likelihood of death in the next year.
Decreased sleep messes with our hunger and satiety hormone buddies–ghrelin and leptin–and that dysregulation causes impaired glucose metabolism. (Anyone who has worked night shifts has experienced the desire to eat food high in carbs and fat–think donuts–at 3:00 am.).
Inadequate sleep is associated with increased inflammation which leads to an increased risk of dementia, stroke, stress, blood pressure elevation, poor recovery and healing.
Sleep schedule is also so important that when we spring the clocks forward and lose an hour of sleep, we see an increase in heart attacks in the days following. The opposite is true when we gain an hour.
75% of people with depression don’t get adequate sleep. It’s hard to know what’s correlative or causal about the relationship between mental health and sleep.
So how do you improve your sleep?
There are several low hanging adjustments we can make to improve our sleep.
- Prep for a good night’s sleep in the morning.
Get sunlight on your retina as soon as you wake to help support a healthy circadian rhythm.
Caffeine in the morning, even first thing, can interrupt sleep at night. (Depending on your genetics, you may metabolize caffeine slowly which may have an even more profound deleterious effect on sleep.)
- Prep for a good night’s sleep in the evening.
Stop eating at least 3 hours before you go to sleep.
Ideally, turn off gadgets and do your best to avoid stress in the hours before bed. If you have to use electronics before bed, consider orange blue light blocking glasses.
- Pursue total darkness!
Artificial light in the evening blocks melatonin release and melatonin is the conductor of the sleep symphony.
Invest in blackout shades and turn off or cover the LED lights in your room with tape. Our modern lifestyle makes it really hard to give your body the cues it needs.
- Keep your room cool.
65-68 degrees fahrenheit is the ideal sleeping temperature for most humans. Our ancestors went to sleep soon after the sun went down and the temperature dropped. Cold temps help stimulate deep sleep.
- Keep a regular schedule.
Everyone’s ideal schedule is different. Our culture is organized around early birds, but evidence suggests that each person has a default natural sleeping and waking rhythm, or chronotype. Determining your chronotype–early bird, night owl, etc.–can help some people to sleep when sleep can be optimized.
A few years ago, a functional doctor told me to quit shift work in favor of a predictable sleep schedule. I balked at the idea. The more I’ve learned since, the more harmful and impactful I know shift work is to sleep and overall health. (In my case, I have a genetic SNPS, or a variation in my genes, that makes me particularly susceptible to dementia with poor sleep.)
- Some sleep aids can help.
Sustained release melatonin can help us fall and stay asleep. Maybe more compelling, evidence suggests melatonin is cancer protective and anti-inflammatory. (It’s worth knowing that all melatonins are not created equal. Many over-the-counter melatonin products have low bioavailability, meaning your body won’t be able to absorb and benefit from it.)
There are some peptides that may help support sleep, including CJC/Ipamorelin and DSIP (delta sleep-inducing peptide).
For women, progesterone is a great sleep enhancer and also helps balance the danger of unprotected (or too much) estrogen.
CBD is also helpful for sleep.
For all of these supplements it’s important you are getting high quality products at the proper doses. CBD, like melatonin, is often sold in products that are not bioavailable. You would need to take the entire bottle to get an effect.
If you’ve tried these things and you continue to struggle, checking your genomics might provide some illumination of ways you can improve. For example, I have a SNP (MTNR1B) that makes me have poor sleep if I eat too late. It’s really a wonder I’m alive with my particular SNPS and years of shift work.
People who struggle with sleep commonly turn to sleeping pills, such as benadryl, benzos, Ambien and others. As a former night shift worker, I have taken more than my fair share of Ambien. I shudder to think of the long term harm I caused with irregular and insufficient sleep. We know that people taking sleeping pills have a 35% higher risk of developing cancer. Sleeping pills generally impair our restorative deep and REM sleep, which may be part of the problem. We don’t know if the main root cause is sleeping pills, difficulty sleeping or something else.
There is a very small cohort of people that can survive on fewer than 6 hours of sleep. 99.9% of us need 7-9 hours of sleep.
Help yourself relax before sleep using the 4-7-8 Breath.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?