One of my favourite expressions in university was ‘sleep has no memories.’ Now I’ve come to understand that without sleep, I will have no memory. My how things have changed!
Over the last six months, WF has become obsessed with sleep. We’ve read endlessly on the ways to get more sleep, the routines to ensure better sleep, the foods to eat, as well as what not to eat and drink or watch. At the end of the day, our bodies and more importantly our brains need sleep. With Daylight Savings quickly approaching (MARCH 14TH), we decided that this was a great time to talk to our readers about the mysteries of sleep and how we can make this transition as smoothly as possible.
So – why do we need to sleep?
The traditional thinking about sleep would have you treat it as an indulgence versus a necessary part of life for building and nourishing your body mentally, emotionally and physically. Starting at the top – our brains need sleep! Sleep increases our brain’s plasticity and helps remove the ‘waste products’ that harm our brain’s functioning.
Lack of sleep negatively impacts our emotional and physical health also. With too little sleep we have a reduced ability to manage emotional challenges and it can contribute to a lack of empathy and depression. In fact, studies have shown that when you have insomnia, you’re five times more likely to develop depression, and your odds of anxiety or panic disorders are even greater.
The negative impacts on our physical body are immeasurable – from reduced ability to fight illness to high blood pressure.
Sleep also plays a role in metabolism: Even one night of missed sleep can create a prediabetic state in an otherwise healthy person to say nothing of the fact that our tendency to eat more – less healthy foods increases dramatically.
The Science and Stages of Sleep
Our sleep cycle is regulated by our internal body clock and operates according to the circadian rhythm. As we move through our day, we become increasingly tired – this sleep drive is called sleep homeostasis. The brain produces an organic compound called ‘adenosine.’ As our adensosine levels increase we become increasingly tired. This cycle works in cooperation with the light cycles. As the light decreases – our body releases melatonin – which increases drowsiness.
Our bodies experience 4 main stages during our sleep cycle. The first three stages are known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the final stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These four stages will repeat cyclically throughout the night until you wake up. For most people, the duration of each cycle will last between 90-120 minutes. NREM sleep constitutes about 75% to 80% of each cycle.
Our current lifestyles have short circuited this process. Sometimes, it is due to the nature of work (shift work in the case of doctors/nurses), the connected nature of our e-lifestyle, or simply celebrating a night out with friends.
So, what does happen when we don’t sleep?
Perhaps Elon Musk could be the poster child for the damage that lack of sleep can do. In 2019, while working 120 hours a week, rarely leaving the Tesla factory and relying on Ambien, so he could squeeze in a few hours, he made some irrational decisions. “The combination of overwork, exhaustion, and Ambien was at least partly to blame for his self-destructive tweeting.” (Inc. Magazine) Tesla and Musk ended up each paying $20 million fine to the SEC for erroneous tweets about privatizing Tesla. The damaging impact of lack of sleep – can certainly happen over time – but there can be some immediate impacts also – such as falling asleep at the wheel, weight gain and lack of ability to remember or process important details for home or work.
Effects of Sleep Medication
So, what are people doing to get sleep? One of the key things people are doing is relying on OTC and prescription medication. But, if you are having a tough time getting your Ambien prescription filled by your doctor, there may be a good reason. A study out of the University of Montreal and the University of Bordeaux found that after 3 – 6 months use of benzodiazepines increases risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32% and more than 6 months of use increases risk by 84%.
Ariana Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution highlights the dangers of taking sleep medications as experienced by two well known personalities – Anna Kendrick and Julia Sommerfeld.
During Anna Kendrick’s 2014 appearance on Letterman – she repeated a story about taking Ambien before taking off on a flight. She said she remembered nothing after falling asleep and when she woke she discovered that she had recorded a 90 second video of her salad and had changed all her clothes – so that she was now wearing everything that she had packed in her carry on bag.
Julia Sommerfeld’s story was a little harder on her bank account. She said her “wake up “ call about using Ambien came after sleep-shopping $3000 worth of clothes from Anthropologie on her credit card at 2am.
Neither of these famous women remembered what they had done…and given the warning label on the Ambien bottle in 2014, it’s little wonder:
After taking Ambien, you may get up out of bed while not being fully awake and do an activity that you do not know that you are doing. The next morning , you may not remember you did anything during the night….Reported activities include driving a car (sleep driving) making and eating food, talking on the phone, having sex , sleep walking.”
Another study done recently in Canada by professor Dr. Gardner from University of Dalhousie – studied the famous ‘blue pill (zopiclone). He said that “if you take it at 11 o’clock at night and drive at 10 am the next morning you are as impaired as someone who has had 2 shots of vodka and a blood alcohol level of 0.05 – 0.08”.
OTC medications are not much better!
Many people taking products like ZZZQuil – have reported adverse physical effects such as headaches and tremors. And, another commonly used medication is Benadryl. While it is primarily taken for allergies, prolonged use as a sleep aid has links to dementia.
For young people, relying on sleep aids can be very damaging in the long run. University of Michigan found teenagers who were prescribed sleeping pills were 12 times more likely to abuse them.
Relying on these medications is very tempting – especially after a night or two of no sleep. So, we once again find ourselves with the chicken and egg dilemma. When we don’t sleep, we drink more caffeine, eat more and are more emotional. While there may be times in your life, such as during significant emotional events (such as the loss of a loved one) where you need to have a little ‘sleep help’ be sure to consult your doctor. Discuss alternatives such as melatonin or CBD (without THC).
To learn more about sleep and its impacts on our brains and bodies check out our favorite sleep authors:
Read WF’s Sleep Like A Baby article to discover the new routines and products helping us to get the right amount of Zzzzz’s.