Let’s start with a bit of theater of the mind. Imagine sitting on the couch or in your favorite place to watch Sunday evening TV.
A commercial comes on, one of the pharmaceutical types we have all seen endless times, featuring a middle-aged couple walking on the beach or perhaps riding bikes through a park. The voiceover narrator is smoothly telling us to “speak with our doctor to learn if this pill is right for you.” This new miracle drug has been proven to add years to your life, reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, regulate moods, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve cognitive function. But wait, there’s more! This pill will prevent or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and as a bonus feature: it helps curb appetite and stop unwanted weight gain.
Following this jaw-dropping list of benefits, we wait for the narrator to start rattling off the laundry list of side effects and warnings of why this too-good-to-be-true pill is, in fact, too good to be true. Not the case though! The narrator tells us there are no side effects to be had and actually, this ‘medication’ is available at no charge, same-day delivery included.
If you saw that commercial, it’s likely you and I, like most viewers, would be highly interested in speaking with our doctor to confirm that, heck yeah, this medicine is right for me!
Here’s the good news/bad news reality of the situation. On the good side, there is no pill we need to take, and all those benefits are readily available to us at no charge simply by prioritizing a healthy approach to sleep habits. (Or, as it’s often called, proper ‘sleep hygiene’). The bad news is that a significant percentage of us (35% according to the CDC) are chronically sleep deprived, as measured by less than 7 hours of sleep per night.
Generally speaking, most of us are unaware of how significant a role sleep plays in our overall mental and physical health and the real work that sleep does in prolonging high-quality lifespans and preventing a wide array of illnesses and diseases. Not surprisingly, the alternative is also valid. Chronically short sleeping has been conclusively proven to be a contributing factor and accelerant in some of the worst things we want to avoid in life. Cancer and Alzheimer’s are top of the list, but because short-sleeping directly impacts our immune system, we are much more likely to catch a cold, come down with the flu, or test positive for Covid when we are not sleeping enough. As an analogy, think of your body as a fortress. Sleep is the salary you pay your army of immune system soldiers. When you get enough sleep, they are happily working as a perimeter of defense against all manners of infection, constantly on watch and ready to spring into action to defend your fortress. When we are short of sleep, we are doing a mass layoff of half of our army because of ‘budget cuts’. This allows infections of any type to invade and easily make us sick.
From a cardiovascular perspective, it’s safe to say that an unhealthy heart is often closely linked to unhealthy sleep. As we get older, the significance of the sleep/heart relationship becomes even more apparent as it relates to blood pressure. Put simply, when we don’t get enough sleep, our heart needs to work harder the next day. Adults over 45 who regularly sleep less than 6 hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Unfortunately, the period of life often considered the prime of our professional careers is when we feel most time-pressured and directly collides with when we should prioritize sleep more than ever. Suffice it to say, sleep is often on the losing end of the stick in how we decide to allocate our hours, and each year we collectively pay a huge price. Cardiovascular problems are a leading cause of death in the US, and according to the CDC, 1 in 3 deaths are heart-related, and upwards of 150,000 yearly are under 65.
As a final point on sleep and heart health, we can look at the results of the annual ‘experiment’ done every six months. According to the American Heart Association, each spring, on the Monday after we set our clocks ahead and lose an hour of sleep, there is an annual average of a 24% increase in heart attacks in the US. Each fall, when we set the clocks back and gain an hour of sleep, there is an average 21% decrease.
Another very real-life safety aspect of sleep deprivation relates to drowsy driving, which, depending on the extent, will result in the same level of cognitive impairment as driving while intoxicated. An alarming study by AAA presented data that about 250,000 people fall asleep while driving daily, and 56 million drivers report struggling to stay awake driving at least once a month. Along with those statistics, in the US, over 350,000 accidents and an average of over 6,000 traffic fatalities are attributed to drowsy driving each year.
Reducing the risk of illness, heart problems, and car accidents are all solid reasons for us to get more sleep, but it’s also essential to look at the superpowers we can tap into by getting a healthy amount of sleep.
Our brain is a fantastic supercomputer allowing us to take in vast amounts of information daily. Our computer will function at peak performance levels, enabling us to regulate our moods, identify creative solutions to problems, function at peak performance, and essentially be the version of ourselves we aspire to. All we need to do is allow it to ‘install factory updates’ each night to continue to operate without bugs, crashes, and glitches.
If you are already getting plenty of sleep, congratulations. Your body and brain, thank you. If you, as I formerly did, treat sleep like a low-value part of the day that gets whatever scraps of your time you toss at it when the day is done, I suggest an experiment.
Make sleep a priority for 30 days, and see how you feel. For me, that involved setting a nightly bedtime goal which I tracked in a written journal each day. ‘Sleep opportunity’ is how many hours you are in bed, and your actual sleep could be significantly less than that when factoring in the time to fall asleep and the many micro awakenings that happen each night. For example, if your goal is to sleep 7 hours, plan to provide 8 hours of sleep opportunity each night. Put another way, if you get into bed at 11 pm and have your alarm set for 6 am, you are not getting 7 hours of sleep; you are likely getting closer to 6.
If you have a wearable device like a FitBit or Apple Watch, you have probably seen your sleep data and are familiar with this situation of sleep opportunity versus actual time asleep. Other tips for success include being consistent and getting into a ritual that avoids blue light from screens (night mode on your phone settings will make it black and white at whatever time you want each night).
Last but not least, I highly recommend the book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Dr. Matthew Walker as a fascinating and entertaining deep dive into what happens when we sleep. It will give you a new understanding, appreciation and plenty of reasons to prioritize sleep as much as diet and exercise. I can say with surety that reading this book back in 2020 singlehandedly changed how I view and utilize sleep in my schedule.
Like a good mattress, sleep is the foundation that makes all the difference in life!