Brent Lockridge, CNP
Sleep - The Forgotten Remedy
A study done in the mid 1990’s looking at traffic accident records, revealed the alarming effect that even a small sleep deficit can have on human behaviour. In the study it was shown that when the clocks are moved ahead in the spring, and many lose an hour of sleep, lethal auto accidents increase by 7%, conversely, when we gain an hour of sleep in the fall there is a 7% reduction in such accidents.[i] The downstream effects of chronic sleep deprivation are nothing short of profound, and these effects can have a significant impact on our day to day lives. Both thinking and feeling are seriously impaired by sleep deficiency. A research team at the Henry Ford Hospital found that people who felt “fine”, but had only slept 8 hours the previous night, performed significantly less effectively on tests of information processing, creativity, and critical thinking than when they had slept 10 hours. These studies show the effects of what many may consider a minor sleep deficit, but other research studies have shown that an individual that has been awake for 21 hours straight has the mental functioning capacity of an individual with a .08 blood alcohol level, legally drunk in Canada[ii]. Sleep is clearly critical for us to function.
The evolution of our species over the last 200,000 years has been cyclical and circadian. Our species is diurnal. We tend to sense our limits in the darkness, our vision, one of our sharpest senses, tends to reach its effective limits, and without it we tend to feel vulnerable. This limitation was addressed about 1 million years ago when our early ancestors found comfort in the campfire, but to a large degree we have been conditioned to a natural day and night cycle, light and dark.
The daily cycle of human functions, whether metabolic, psychological, or behavioural are regulated by internal clocks throughout our bodies. The master clock is located in the hypothalamus in the forebrain region and is regulated by the timing of light hitting the retina. When natural daylight, rich in blue light, hits our retina during the day our master clock is recharged, and signals the body to perform such tasks as eating, sleeping, and resting. This exposure to adequate blue light during the day also seems to be associated with better moods, cognitive focus, and better sleep quality later on at night. This same blue light keeps melatonin (the sleep hormone) production in check during the day, and insures adequate production at night, when most needed. [iii] But even a small amount of artificial light from a few candles can throw off melatonin levels, and that small amount of light cannot even be compared to the onslaught of artificial blue light that we are doused with every time we are exposed to LED lights, televisions, phones and tablets late into the evening hours.
If the body is deprived of oxygen, we suffocate, lack of food means we starve, and if our body temperature falls below a certain level, we will eventually freeze to death. Like oxygen, food and warmth, our need for sleep is very carefully calibrated into our instinctive machinery. When symptoms such as daytime sleepiness or general fatigue are sensed by our brains, our body is telling us it needs more sleep. So, this begs the question, how much sleep do we need. This isn’t an easy question to answer, but there are several methods we can use to make a solid guess. First, we can look at people when they go camping and do not have the convenience of artificial light. Second, we can observe individuals in sleep labs, where subjects are unaware of whether it is day or night. Third, we can observe people in less developed countries that do not have access to artificial light. These explorations into sleep habits revealed that we are meant to sleep when it is dark, approximately 9 to 10 hours a night.[iv] This is consistent with records that predate the invention of the lightbulb in North America that indicate individuals slept between nine and ten hours per night.
Doctors, therapists, phycologists and psychiatrists all list fatigue as one of the top three complaints they hear from patients, and the source of that fatigue is lack of adequate sleep. Even though we are designed by nature to get nine or more hours of sleep per night, the average North American adult gets seven or less. As stated earlier we know that this sleep debt results in cognitive impairment, lost work productivity, and accident rates. It can also diminish vitality, and optimism, and can be the source of anxiety and depressive disorders. Even minor sleep debt can measurably reduce the effectiveness of our immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to infectious disease.[v] So, as a society how do we manage this sleep debt? The short answer is artificial stimulants, stimulants in the form of caffeine (either coffee or cola), tea, nicotine and chocolate. These stimulants all have long term negative effects on our health. The adverse effects of nicotine are well known, but less so are those of caffeine. Heavy users of coffee, caffeinated teas and colas are susceptible to high blood pressure which can lead to heart attack and stroke, it also increases nervousness and irritability. Coffee and cola drinks are also associated with bone deterioration as the phosphoric acid in such drinks erodes bone integrity. One study done with young girls showed that those who consume cola drinks are four times more likely to experience broken bones than those who do not use those products.[vi]
Our natural guidance system that ensures the optimal amount of rest we need every day has been overridden by modern inventions such as artificial light, and blue light emitting screens of all shapes and sizes. Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of the great benefits that a good night’s sleep can provide. Our life is full of habits, we need to prioritize consistent quality sleep, along with good nutrition, exercise, stress management, and good relationships as habits to promote wellness.
Here are just a few tips (of many) to improve your sleep quality.
Prioritize sleep by putting it in your schedule – plan for eight to nine hours of sleep every night
As much as possible try to go to sleep and wake at the same time each day, this will train your biological clock.
Use a routine that “slows you down” in the hour preceding bedtime. Try a relaxing yoga, a stress reducing mindful breathing practice or a warm bath
Avoid caffeine consumption six to eight hours before bedtime
Avoid alcohol consumption three hours before bedtime
Finish any aerobic exercise three hour prior to bedtime
Avoid all types of screens (TV, computers, phones, and tablets) in the hour preceding bedtime
Keep your bedroom dark and cool
[i] Dement, W., The Promise of Sleep, New York: Dell, 2000.
[ii] *Source: Fatigue, Extended Work Hours, and Workplace Safety, February 2017. Government of Alberta, Labour
[iii] Prescott, S., Logan, A, The Secret Life of your Microbiome, Gabriola Island, B.C., New Society Publishers, 2017. 47
[iv] Vein, A.H.., et al. “Physical Exercise and Nocturnal Sleep in Healthy Humans” Human Physiology, 17 (1991). 391-97
[v] Irwin, M., McClintick, J., Costlow, C., et al. “partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell and cellular immune reposes in humans” Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 10 (1996): 643-53
[vi] Wyshak, G. “Teenaged girls carbonated beverage consumption, and bone fractures.” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 154 no.6 (2000) 610-13.