Growing up, my mom had many favorite sayings. Several of these mom-isms have served me well, but there are two I’ve learned not to follow. (Sorry, mom!)
1. You can sleep when you’re dead.
2. If you’re not tired when you come home from vacation, you did it wrong.
I’m still a big believer in seeing all and doing all while traveling, but I’ve moved away from the first belief. As I’ve begun to adult, I’ve learned that sleep is literally a human superpower.
This year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to three researchers studying the circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm helps to regulate our sleep, hormones, body temperature, and metabolism. It is the clock that keeps our bodies ticking towards wakefulness and sleep—aided by a gene that encodes a protein which builds up at night and deteriorates throughout the day. Thanks to these researchers, we better understand how and why every organism operates on a 24-hour cycle.
And yet, we take sleep for granted; 40 percent of Americans average fewer than the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep a night. As a society, we believe that success equates to being tired, busy, and stressed. So many successful CEOs tell a story that goes something like this: I sleep just four hours a night, go to the gym every day, meditate, and run a multi-million dollar company in my spare time.
That’s become our cultural equation for success. The problem is that research shows that sleep is the miracle cure for practically any problem. Got a cold? Sleep. Gaining weight? Sleep. Not progressing at work? Sleep. Not getting along with your spouse? Sleep.
In short, sleep is the ultimate lifehack.
Sleep is the ultimate lifehack.
Benefits of (more) sleep
Arianna Huffington said it best: “Sleep your way to the top. Literally.”
When we’re asleep, our bodies do more than rest. Sleep allows our brains to create memories, repair our muscles and skin, replenish our white blood cells to fight viruses, and solve problems as we dream.
As we sleep, our body is busy fixing damage, rebuilding storehouses of important hormones, and filing away learned material for later use. Sleep can also help improve a number of other things (including your driving!), and even contributes to happiness. Here’s why you should get your recommended seven to nine hours per night.
1. Improve your driving. We all know that texting while driving isn’t safe, but what about driving while tired? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving is the cause of 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 deaths each year. And yet 60 percent of adults admit to driving while drowsy and one-third have actually fallen asleep at the wheel.
For those who don’t sleep well, driving can be especially dangerous. One study found that after 17 to 19 hours of wakefulness, a person’s cognitive and motor performance was similar to those of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. After 20 hours, performance dropped to levels equal to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent, which is legally drunk in the U.S. Yet, most of us wouldn’t think twice about driving to work after pulling an all nighter (those presentations don’t build themselves).
2. Maintain weight. Sleep isn’t the next “miracle diet,” so don’t get your hopes up too high. What research has found is that sleep deprivation makes us crave higher calorie foods. Lack of sleep can also stimulate hunger and trigger the endocannabinoid system which activates our desire for tasty foods.
One study found that sleep-deprived participants consume an average of 385 calories more (and more fatty foods) than those who are well-rested. So, while sleeping more isn’t a diet, a healthy amount of sleep can help you stay away from unhealthy foods.
3. Learn faster. When we first learn something new, it’s squishy in our brain. To really make it stick, we need sleep. During sleep, our brain is busy moving memories and skills to more permanent brain regions. It’s one reason why infants and teenagers need so much sleep—their bodies are growing and they’re learning many new things.
4. Improve your immune system and live healthier. Our immune system’s job is to fight off colds, the flu, and other yucky things. The reason sleep improves our immune system isn’t yet documented, but research shows that lack of sleep makes us more prone to getting sick.
In fact, a lack of sleep increases a person’s risk of developing serious medical conditions. Half of all adults (over 117 million Americans) have at least one chronic disease, which includes diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific cause for these diseases, but a lack of sleep can be a factor.
5. Improve emotional happiness. We don’t need research to tell us that when we’re tired we’re more likely to be irritable, grumpy, and emotionally reactive, but scientists have brought people into the lab, kept them up all night, and then challenged them with frustrating tasks. The result? Less happy people.
When we get into the world of emotions, it always gets messy. When researchers look at sleep and depression, they find that it’s a bit of a “chicken or egg” scenario, but research does reveal higher rates of insomnia and hypersomnia in those diagnosed as depressed, and higher rates of depression in people who sleep less.
6. Live longer. I’ll keep it simple: a study that included 1.3 million people over 25 years found that sleeping less than six hours a night increased the risk of dying prematurely by 12 percent.
7. Be a better leader. The brain’s prefrontal cortex copes the worst with being sleep-deprived. Why does that matter? It controls all of our higher-order cognitive processes: organization, reasoning, problem-solving, planning, and inhibition. Basically, all of the functions we need to be a great leader.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex copes the worst with being sleep-deprived. Why does that matter? It controls all of our higher-order cognitive processes: organization, reasoning, problem-solving, planning, and inhibition. Basically, all of the functions we need to be a great leader.
Sleep deprivation makes it harder to focus our attention and to interpret visual and auditory cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice. And if you do misinterpret these cues when you’re tired, you’re more likely to overreact. By contrast, getting enough sleep leads to higher levels of creativity and problem-solving. We want and need leaders that sleep.
8. Be a better partner in your relationship. We’ve all experienced the haze following a night without much sleep. In general, lack of sleep makes people more grumpy and hostile. Not the kind of person you want to spend your life with.
Research has shown that couples still argue when they’re well rested, but are more likely to approach conflict in a constructive way. Without a full night’s sleep, people are more likely to use negative words and phrases.
Research has also found that when married couples sleep less, the inflammatory proteins in their blood are higher after a conflict than when they’re getting enough sleep. That means that lack of sleep + relationship conflict = more toxic blood. The research did find that when one partner wasn’t getting enough sleep, but the other was, it was possible to mitigate the rise in hostile conflict.
9. Reduce risk for Alzheimer’s. As humans live longer, we’re experiencing higher rates of certain diseases, including various forms of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease. Research hasn’t clearly shown what causes Alzheimer’s, or what we can do to lower our risk as we age, but there is evidence that suggests a connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s.
A study of 101 cognitively normal older people revealed that poor sleep, sleepiness during the day, and sleep problems all increased the spinal fluid and tangles that are indicators of Alzheimer’s. Why sleep affects the brain this way is still unclear, but a study of mice found that the brain clears away dementia-related toxins during sleep.
Do you need another reason?
Ideally, you spend one third of your life sleeping, and now you know why. As we work through our New Year’s resolutions, we ought to add sleeping more to the list, lest we undermine pretty much everything else we set out to do. Sleep can make us happier, healthier, and help us to live longer—and it’s free.