By Dr. Mercola
Sleep is such an important part of your overall wellness that no amount of healthful food and exercise can counteract the ill effects of poor sleeping habits.
Researchers have linked poor sleep to a number of health ailments, from short-term memory loss and behavioral problems, to weight gain, diabetes and even increased risk of cancer, just to mention a few.
Yet sleep is usually one of the first things people sacrifice when the calendar starts to fill up with commitments and to-do's.
Sleep researchers are also hard at work trying to develop ways to dramatically reduce people's need for sleep, if not eliminate it entirely. I believe that to be foolhardy to say the least, but I can certainly see how the military would find the notion enticing.
Can Technology Eliminate Your Need for Sleep?
Stimulants like modafinil and dextroamphetamine have long been used to combat daytime sleepiness caused by lack of nighttime sleep. Clearly, this is putting the cart before the horse, and stimulants have their limitations, including reduced performance and amphetamine-induced paranoia—both of which can be considered significant drawbacks, if not liabilities, if lives are on the line.
According to the featured article in Aeon,1 new technologies are emerging, promising to decrease our relentless need for sleep, without the side effects associated with stimulant drugs:
"Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the research arm of the US military – leads the way in squeezing a full night's sleep into fewer hours, by forcing sleep the moment head meets pillow, and by concentrating that sleep into only the most restorative stages."
To improve the restorative effects of "power napping," the military has developed a mask called the Somneo Sleep Trainer. The mask screens out audio and visual distractions, has a warming element around the eyes that promotes relaxation, and contains a blue light that gradually brightens as your alarm time nears.
The blue light helps to suppress melatonin production, which is thought to help you feel less groggy when you wake up, even though you haven't had a full night's sleep. According to the featured article:
"Sleep ideally contains multiple 60- to 90-minute cycles, from slow-wave sleep back up to REM, but a 20-minute nap is all about dipping into Stage 2 as quickly as possible. The idea of the Somneo is to fast-track through Stage 1 sleep, a gateway stage with few inherent benefits, and enter Stage 2, which at least restores fatigued muscles and replenishes alertness."
Interestingly enough, another military initiative involves omega-3 supplementation, as animal-based omega-3s have been found to "sustain performance over 48 hours without sleep" and improve attention and learning.
Other newer technologies include an FDA approved transcranial stimulation device to treat insomnia, sold by Fisher Wallace Laboratories. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is becoming increasingly popular among insomniacs.
While similar to electroconvulsive therapy (aka "shock therapy"), tDCS uses far less of a charge—just enough to alter the polarization of the neurons without making them fire. As of yet, no detrimental effects on the brain have been observed, but studies are still being done to investigate the exact mechanisms that make it so effective. According to the featured article:
"After a half-hour session... subjects are energized, focused and keenly awake. They learn visual search skills at double the speed, and their subsequent sleep — as long as it does not fall directly after the stimulation session — is more consolidated, with briefer waking periods and longer deep-sleep sessions.
To combat insomnia, this type of treatment is used daily in two-week sessions, according to clinical recommendations by Richard Brown, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. The mechanism might lie in its anti-anxiety effects: patients familiar with Xanax or Valium describe their post-tCDS mood as a clear-headed version of taking these medications."
Another technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) directly causes your neurons to fire, which can literally induce deep sleep at the flip of a switch... TMS devices are being investigated by neuroscientists at Duke University, who have shown that by targeting a central region at the top of your head, pulsed slow-frequencies can enter the neural area where sleep is generated. Once artificially stimulated in this way, your brain in essence shuts "off" more or less instantly.
Some see the promise of sleep-enhancing technologies as a form of life extension, as sleeping less while still maintaining performance would extend your conscious lifespan. The question is whether it can really be done without ill effects. After all, your circadian rhythms or "body clocks" have a powerful influence on multiple biological systems, some of which we may not even fully understand as of yet.
How Do You Know if You're Getting Proper Sleep?
If you feel well-rested in the morning, that's a good sign that your sleep habits are just fine. But if not, you might want to investigate your sleep patterns more closely. You could have a professional evaluation in a sleep laboratory for a comprehensive diagnosis if you think you may have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder interfering with quality sleep, or consider the ZEO Sleep Mobile Manager, a useful new tool that is available on Amazon for under $100.
ZEO is an innovative sleep measurement device that you can use at home. It's an electronic device with a headband that emits a signal into what looks like an alarm clock. This device allows you to perform a personalized 'sleep study.' It's strongly correlated with polysonography, which you typically have to go to a sleep center to get, and pay big bucks for – around $2,000 for just one night.
The ZEO allows you to measure your sleep night after night, for as long as you want. So the device lets you evaluate how various factors affect your sleep. For example, you can evaluate how your sleep was affected by a cup of coffee in the afternoon, or how doing computer work past a certain hour impacted your sleep. The data collection is quite sophisticated. It will show you your time awake, how long it took you to fall asleep, time in light sleep, time in deep sleep, and time in REM sleep. It distributes this information over a graph and gives you percentages, along with a cumulative score of your sleep over time. It's a sophisticated device that I think can be used in a really positive way, by helping you determine what works and what doesn't.
ZEO is an important tool as it will allow you to carefully biohack your sleep and determine precisely the effect of new lifestyle changes on your sleep. It is important to use the less expensive mobile sleep manager as that will allow you scan your brainwaves without transmitting the data until the morning when you awake and manually transfer to your smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth.
I have been using ZEO for nearly three years now and have accumulated loads of data. When I first started using it, I was frequently only getting less than 10 minutes a night of deep sleep. For over two years, I struggled to increase it but was unable to figure out how to do that until I started oral myofunctional therapy which you can learn more about in the video below. After six months of therapy, I was able to increase my deep sleep to close by an hour and occasionally two hours which is a beyond-phenomenal improvement.
My only caution on the new therapies that are being discussed above is to use them in conjunction with a ZEO otherwise you will have no idea how they are impacting the quality of your sleep. And the other technologies may not even be necessary as the ZEO application itself provides loads of customized feedback depending on what phase of your sleep is disrupted.
How Sound Can Affect Your Sleep
In related news,2 sound stimulation has been shown to be effective for prolonging deep sleep and improving memory. Published in the journal Neuron,3 the study found that playing "pink noise," sounds that were synchronized to the subject's brain waves when the subject approached deep sleep, allowed them to remain in deep sleep longer than when the sound was not played. The participants were also shown 120 pairs of words before going to bed and tested the following morning to see how many they could remember. After sound stimulation, the subjects improved their memory retention by nearly 60 percent, recalling an average of 22 sets of words compared to 13 when the sound was not played.
The key, according to the authors, is that the frequency of the sound was synched to the subject's brain waves. This produced an increase in the size of the brain waves during deep sleep, and these slower brain waves are associated with information processing and memory formation. Co-author Dr. Jan Born told Nature World News:4
"The beauty lies in the simplicity to apply auditory stimulation at low intensities-an approach that is both practical and ethical, if compared for example with electrical stimulation-and therefore portrays a straightforward tool for clinical settings to enhance sleep rhythms."
Numerous studies have shown the importance of sleep for all things related to brain function, from memory formation and retention, to learning, creativity and problem solving. If you keep toiling over a problem, you can easily wind up with tunnel vision that keeps you from finding an appropriate solution. Sleep, it turns out, removes the blinders and helps "reset" your brain to look at things from a different perspective, which is crucial to creativity.
So will technology eventually be able to allow your brain and all your biochemical systems to harmoniously function on, say, half of your normal sleep? Time will tell, but in the meantime, I'd strongly suggest working on getting some regular shut-eye the natural way, because your mental and physical health does depend on it. Chronic insomnia has even been linked to premature death from any cause. Again, if you are going to use any intervention, it is my strong recommendation that you use a device like the ZEO Sleep Mobile Manager that I discussed above as it will provide you with the hard objective data you need to make an intelligent determination of how effective the therapy was.
How Too Little Sleep Affects Your Health
If you fail to sleep well regularly, for whatever reason, it is virtually impossible to be optimally healthy, as interrupted or impaired sleep can cause a ripple-effect capable of wreaking all sorts of havoc in your body. For example, poor sleep can:
Dramatically weaken your immune system Contribute to mood disorders like depression Decrease production of melatonin, a potent antioxidant that helps to suppress harmful free radicals and slows the production of estrogen, which can activate cancer Raise your risk of heart disease Accelerate tumor growth – tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions Raise your risk of stomach ulcers Cause a pre-diabetic state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can wreak havoc on your weight Contribute to constipation Impair your performance on physical or mental tasks, and decrease your problem solving ability Accelerate aging Seriously impair your memory; even a single night of poor sleep – meaning sleeping only 4 to 6 hours – can impact your ability to think clearly the next day Adversely impact your levels of thyroid and stress hormones
10 Reasons Why You Might Have Trouble Sleeping
There are many factors that can influence your sleep. For my complete recommendations and guidelines that can help you improve your sleep, please see my article 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep. Following are 10 often-overlooked factors to address if you're having trouble with your sleep:
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. So close your bedroom door, and get rid of night-lights. Refrain from turning on any light at all during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. Cover up your clock radio. Cover your windows – I recommend using blackout shades or drapes.
All life evolved in response to predictable patterns of light and darkness, called circadian rhythms. Modern day electrical lighting has significantly betrayed your inner clock by disrupting your natural rhythms. Little bits of light pass directly through your optic nerve to your hypothalamus, which controls your biological clock. Light signals your brain that it's time to wake up and starts preparing your body for action.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least 3 feet. Remove the clock from view. It will only add to your worry when you stare at it all night... 2 a.m. ...3 a.m. ...4:30 a.m.
- Avoid using loud alarm clocks. It is very stressful on your body to be suddenly jolted awake. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, an alarm may even be unnecessary. I gave up my alarm clock years ago and now use a sun alarm clock, an alarm that combines the features of a traditional alarm clock (digital display, AM/FM radio, beeper, snooze button, etc.) with a special built-in light that gradually increases in intensity, simulating sunrise.
- Consider separate bedrooms. Recent studies suggest, for many people, sharing a bed with a partner (or pets) can significantly impair sleep, especially if the partner is a restless sleeper or snores. If bedfellows are consistently interfering with your sleep, you may want to consider a separate bedroom.
- Avoid exercising too close to bedtime. Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day can improve your sleep. But if you exercise too close to bedtime (generally within the three hours before) it may keep you awake.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed. Although alcohol will make you drowsy, the effect is short lived and you will often wake up several hours later, unable to fall back asleep. Alcohol can also keep you from entering the deeper stages of sleep, where your body does most of its healing.
As for coffee, keep in mind caffeine has a half-life of five hours, which means some will still be in your system even 10 hours later, and 12.5 percent 20 hours later (see the problem?). Plus, in some people caffeine is not metabolized efficiently, leaving you feeling its effects even longer after consumption. So, an afternoon cup of coffee or tea will keep some people from falling asleep at night. Be aware that some over-the-counter medications contain caffeine as well (for example, diet pills).
- Avoid watching TV. The artificial glow from your TV can serve as a stimulus for keeping you awake and, possibly, eating, when you should really be asleep. Further, computer and TV screens (and most light bulbs) emit blue light, to which your eyes are particularly sensitive simply because it's the type of light most common outdoors during daytime hours. As a result, it can disrupt your melatonin production and further interfere with your sleep.
- Avoid eating three hours before bed. Although you might struggle with this initially, it is ideal to avoid eating any foods three hours before bed, as this will optimize your blood sugar, insulin and leptin levels and contribute to overall good health.