New Information on the Science of Sleep

sleep, sleepingHuman beings sleep through one-third of their lives, yet why we sleep is one of the biggest unanswered questions of science. In the fascinating article from 60 Minutes, linked below, Lesley Stahl explores all of the latest scientific findings about the reasons for -- and functions of -- sleep.

Here is a sampling of what she found after talking with sleep researchers from across the United States:
  • You can die from sleep deprivation, just like you can die from being deprived of food.
  • Sleep can actually enhance your memories.
  • A single night of sleeping just four, five or even six hours can impact your ability to think clearly.
  • Sleep deprivation can cause changes in your brain activity similar to those experienced by people with psychiatric disorders.
  • Sleep deprivation puts your body into a pre-diabetic state, and makes you feel hungry, even if you’ve already eaten.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:
It is fascinating that for something we spend so much of our time doing, there is no strong consensus as to exactly WHY we do it. What is known is that humans are the only animals that continually push the limits of sleep -- and try to function without enough of it.

As Stahl’s report so clearly revealed, skimping on sleep is a recipe for disaster. For instance, too little sleep can:

1. Make you fat: People who sleep less than seven hours a night tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than people who sleep more. This could be because sleep deprivation alters metabolism. Leptin, the hormone that signals satiety, falls while ghrelin, which signals hunger, rises -- and this boosts your appetite.

2. Harm your brain: Lack of sleep may cause your brain to stop producing new cells.

3. Increase your risk of cancer: How well you sleep can seriously alter the balance of hormones in your body. This can then disrupt your sleep/wake cycle, also called your circadian rhythm. A disrupted circadian rhythm may influence cancer progression through shifts in hormones like melatonin, which your brain makes during sleep.

4. Increase your risk of diabetes: Too little sleep may reduce levels of leptin, possibly causing you to gain weight and then develop diabetes.

5. Accelerate aging: Regularly catching only a few hours of sleep can hinder metabolism and hormone production in a way that is similar to the effects of aging.

Studies have also linked sleep deprivation to heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. And it’s during sleep that your body does most of its repairs, so not getting enough of it can impair your immune system and leave you less able to fight off diseases.

Yet, in today’s society, the ability to get just five hours of sleep a night, or less, is touted like a badge of honor. Well, you may think that you can function on just a little bit of sleep, but you cannot fool your body. All of the caffeine in the world cannot make up for a good night’s sleep.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Generally speaking, adults need to get between six and nine hours of sleep a night. But there are definitely exceptions. Some people can, in fact, function well on as few as five hours a night, while others need up to 10.

You may also need more sleep during times of illness or emotional stress, or during the winter months. And pregnant women often need several hours more sleep than usual during their first three months of pregnancy.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you feel tired when you wake up, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep. Most of us have set times that we need to wake up in the morning, so getting more sleep, for most of us, means going to bed earlier.

Personally, I sleep between six and seven hours a night and sometimes as little as 3-4. However, there are some major caveats here. I do not use an alarm clock and sleep in a pitch dark room that is even dark at noon. So I wake up when I am rested.

Once in awhile I may actually sleep nine or even ten hours, especially when I have exercised heavily and had intense business activities. This also happens when I am coming off of jet lag. 

However, this is only a few times a year. What I have come to realize is that if you aren’t jumping out of bed filled with joy, passion and enthusiasm for all the day has to offer you, you may have to do some serious life reflection. There may also be some chronic emotional challenges such as anxiety or even depression that is impairing your sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, take advantage of some of the practical solutions I’ve outlined in my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep, which include:
  • Avoid before-bed snacks, particularly grains and sugars. This will raise blood sugar and inhibit sleep. Later, when blood sugar drops too low (hypoglycemia), you might wake up and not be able to fall back asleep.
  • Sleep in complete darkness or as close as possible. If there is even the tiniest bit of light in your room it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin.
  • No TV right before bed. Even better, get the TV out of the bedroom or even out of the house, completely. It is too stimulating to your brain and it will take longer to fall asleep.
  • Wear socks to bed. Due to the fact that they have the poorest circulation, your feet often feel cold before the rest of your body. A study has shown that wearing socks reduces night wakings
  • Get to bed as early as possible. Our systems, particularly our adrenals, do a majority of their recharging or recovering during the hours of 11PM and 1AM.
  • Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly the upstairs bedrooms too hot.
  • Eat a high-protein snack several hours before bed. This can provide the L-tryptophan need to produce melatonin and serotonin.

In addition, you can use Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). It effectively addresses emotional reasons for insomnia. See Using EFT for Insomnia.

+ Sources and References
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