Sleep: The Golden Chain

by Mohab Hanna, M.D. and Alexander Wright, Psy.D.

You will die from sleep deprivation before you die from starvation. It takes approximately 2 weeks to starve but only 10 days to potentially die from sleep deprivation. The latest research shows that a significant number of Americans don’t feel fully rested for most of the week. Only a small percentage of Americans report waking up at least one day a week feeling well rested, while 40% say that they wake up once, twice, or three times a week feeling poorly rested. 38% say that they’re poorly rested four or more days a week. These numbers are staggering but are probably consistent with most of our experiences.

Sleep can significantly impact memory function, attention, and other important cognitive abilities. Sleep can also significantly impact our moods, coping abilities, and relationships. Adequate sleep is so vital in the promotion of tying health and our bodies together. Good sleep hygiene decreases inflammation in the body protecting us from heart disease, arthritis, and other dangerous and harmful ailments. Positive sleep habits increases and improves memory function, which is also linked to problem solving and creativity.

Perhaps the strongest connection is between sleep and stress. With a good night sleep of 7 hours or more (more for children and adolescents), we can significantly reduce our stress levels, which then gives us increased control over blood pressure and other components of cardiovascular health. The power and benefit in good sleep habits is such an important part of mind and body health and balance.

We live in a fast paced world fueled by the powers of modern technology. It is easy to get stuck in this toxic pace and subsequently forget, minimize, or undervalue the clear and evidence based benefits of sleep. Research persistently demonstrates the fact that sleeping well equates with thinking well. It is so valuable to make the effort to take an inventory of all of the activities that are potentially interfering with an optimal night of sleep and not be afraid to say no to some of the activities that are interfering with sleeping well. Additionally, changes in testosterone levels occur naturally during sleep in men and women alike. Testosterone levels naturally increase while we are sleeping and decrease during waking hours. Low testosterone levels in men has been associated with obstructive sleep apnea. Individuals suffering from sleep apnea seem more vulnerable to a variety of sexual dysfunctions including erectile problems, a decreased libido, and impotence.

Many of us have difficulties practicing healthy sleep habits given the expectations and pace of our professional and personal lives. Millions of us resort to caffeine and other products to get through the day. Over time, the dependence builds and we can’t stop. If we try to stop, the feelings of lethargy and painful headaches hit swiftly and hard. Then, we often attempt to recover by grabbing multiple coffees and/or energy drinks; this negative cycle sometimes persists for months or even years and further impacts healthy sleep and nervous system function in an extremely negative regard.

The great news is that healthy sleep hygiene practices are within our control and will promote balanced and quality sleep, which directly impacts our physical and emotional health during waking hours. The following practices are recommended as part of achieving optimal sleep hygiene.

  • Exercise is a vital component of excellent sleep hygiene. More intense exercise is best to practice in the morning or late afternoon. More relaxing forms of exercise such as yoga can be practiced in the evenings as part of balancing your nervous system functions, which sets us up for increased relaxation and healthy sleep.
  • Make your bed and bedroom your sleep temple. Establish a comfortable and calm environment dedicated to sleep and save television and other activities for other places in your home.
  • Alcohol is a depressant but negatively impacts healthy sleep when used in excess or right before bedtime. Caffeine and other stimulants, especially in the evening or around bedtime, will promote increased nervous system activity, which can significantly impact sleep as well. Consider nature’s relaxants as a powerful tool for optimal sleep. For example, not many know that oatmeal is a fantastic sleep food. Oats are rich in melatonin, which is a natural substance found in animals, plants, and other living organisms that can greatly benefit sleep. See Full Fathom’s Nutrition link for additional foods that promote relaxation, physical and emotional health, and exceptional sleep hygiene.
  • Establish good pre-sleep habits. Take a warm bath, practice deep breathing, imagery, and other forms of relaxation (See Full Fathoms blog, Thinking and Relaxation for more detailed information and instruction in relaxation training). A great book or quiet time with a loved one are also good pre-sleep practices.

“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”

– Thomas Dekker