Updated: May 18
Sleep is one of the hottest topics in health at the moment and rightly so, because as self care practices go, a solid eight hours nightly beats any amount of healthy nutrition, meditation, exercise or anything else, in terms of proven health benefits.
Sleep is busy
We used to think that sleep was simply a rest state, when the body was quiet and inactive. But research on sleep and specifically neuroscience has shown us that sleep actually represents an extremely lively state of activity throughout the body involving such critical functions as metabolism, storage, repair and waste management.
As Dr Matthew Walker writes in his best-selling book “Why We Sleep,” sleep is essential for survival from an evolutionary perspective because it is part of the daily life cycle for every known species. Evolution must have excellent reasons for requiring us through sleep, to be vulnerable to predators, unable to care for our young, and neither capable of feeding nor procreating, for at least a third of our lives.
What the heck?
Studies have shown humans can survive without food and even water for far longer than we can survive without sleep. And yet as a society now more than ever in our history, we chronically underrate the importance of sleep and choose voluntarily to deprive ourselves of sleep on a fairly routine basis.
Why wouldn’t we do our best to promote optimal brain health by ensuring we get good sleep
We suffer more from poor quality sleep due to stress and anxiety, complain more about insomnia and fatigue, while also clinging to our LED lights and blue light screens. Science is only beginning to connect the dots between sleep deprivation and chronic conditions, but the list is extensive and humbling.
The best medicine
It turns out that many of our bodies’ innate healing mechanisms are triggered during sleep. Research has shown that sleep improves outcomes in chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Sleep is beneficial for immune function and reduces cancer risk.
Most of us know that sleep improves memory and focus, we don’t need to see the science that proves it. But did you know that sleep has been shown to potentially play an important role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease?
Some of the newest and most exciting discoveries in neuroscience show that the brain can only eliminate debris and metabolic waste through the glymphatic system during sleep. And that chronic sleep deprivation results in accumulation of waste materials, leading to blockage and less efficient clearance over time.
We don’t know that poor quality sleep causes Alzheimer’s disease, but we do know that accumulation of beta amyloid and tau proteins are strongly linked to development of dementia. So why wouldn’t we do our best to promote optimal brain health by ensuring that our daily self care habits are supporting good sleep.
Yin and Yang
Our 21st century lives are constantly on the go. Time is money. Connectivity has become an essential utility, like running water or electricity.
Our brains have become accustomed to frequent stimulus bright screens for work and play - it’s easy to get sucked into internet rabbit holes, entertainment, online shopping, gaming, social media. And while the virtual world may seem fun or pleasurable in the moment, it is at best a distraction and at worse an addiction. Even when “relaxing” with a screen, our brains are in an active or Yang state.
In my experience, Yin relaxation activities are much more conducive to actual rest, and bring the key balancing element needed to cope with the stress, awkwardness and negativity that are so prevalent in our real worlds.
Examples of Yin activities are connecting with nature, walking outside or playing with your pet. Spending time with loved ones. Gentle stretching exercise like yoga. Meditation. Writing in your journal. Playing or listening to music. Creating art. And of course, sleeping.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD
In brief: Everything you want to know about sleep. Explains the benefits, mechanics, and best practices for sleep at the leading edge of brain science.
The Drive by Dr Peter Attia
Episode #47-49 Matthew Walker, Ph.D., On Sleep: Part I - III
In brief: An excellence series of interviews reviewing the science behind how sleep has been shown to produce its numerous health benefits. Smart and funny.
Preview: Dr Peter Attia is a physician focusing on the applied science of longevity. His practice deals extensively with nutritional interventions, exercise physiology, sleep physiology, emotional and mental health, and pharmacology to increase lifespan (how long you live), while simultaneously improving healthspan (the quality of your life).