Updated: Jan 2, 2018
Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.
Recently, a client asked for my opinion on Sleep Training. Prior to the client’s inquiry, my knowledge of sleep training was related to infants, whereby the parents or caregivers would engage in a tactical approach to help the infant adapt to a regular sleep schedule. It turns out that Sleep Training is somewhat of a new fad with executives. Executives in various sectors have apparently embraced Sleep Training as an attempt to rewire their biology to adapt to less sleep (i.e. four hours instead of seven to eight). With less sleep, the individual could (in theory) increase their work-time productivity and could (in theory) increase their performance.
Frankly speaking, Sleep Training for adults may be the most bogus practice I have ever encountered. Sleep is an essential physiological need. As with other essential physiological needs like food, water, oxygen, the human body requires sleep. Now, as with food, water and oxygen the body will adapt to decreased amounts of sleep, however there are long-term repercussions if the body receives less than the required amount on a regular basis. The human body is designed to survive if resources are deficient. Survival is far different than optimal functioning, and overtime body function will be compromised with a plethora of health issues.
The human adult body requires seven to eight hours of sleep a night. To some of you this may seem impossible, impractical, or even ridiculous. If you are one of these individuals, you are not alone. In 2007, the Cooper Institute in Dallas, TX reported that 38% of adults in their patient data base reported less sleep than they reported five years prior. The National Sleep Foundation reported that Americans who sleep fewer than six hours a night has increased from 13% to 20% over the past decade. Sleep deprivation is a prevalent trend in the United States. This wide-spread issue could be partly due to the ongoing increase in hours worked by employees every year, which is expected to continue to increase .
Evaluating sleep deficiency may not be as easy as counting the hours that you are asleep. Recent studies indicate that many insomnia patients misperceive their sleep quantity and quality. Persons that suffer from insomnia have frequent periods of waking up during the night that may not be recalled.
If you are not certain about the amount of sleep you get every night, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do I generally get seven to eight hours of sleep every night?
2. Do I have a consistent bedtime?
3. Do I feel rested when I wake up in the morning?
4. Does it take me a while to wake up in the morning?
5. Have I been told that I snore when I sleep?
6. Have I been told that I stop breathing periodically during the night?
If you answered “yes” to question six, you could be suffering from sleep apnea and should be evaluated by your physician. Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition and can lead to other significant health issues. For example, middle age men that have obstructive sleep apnea are five-times more likely to develop heart disease than middle age men without sleep apnea. If you answered “no” to any of the questions one through four, you are most likely not getting sufficient sleep.
Genetically speaking, research has identified various single nucleotide proteins (SNPs) in human DNA that are linked to sleep. Various SNPs are responsible for our sleep/wake patterns, quality of sleep as well as our diurnal preference. Diurnal preference is related to our preferred time of waking and sleeping. So, if you are not a “morning person” it could definitely be because of your DNA. Genetic studies have surmised that age also has a big impact on sleep. As we age, we gradually awake earlier and earlier. This gradual transition, however should not negatively impact our ability to function.
During sleep, the human body goes into repair-mode. Tissue repair, hormone normalization, free-radical damage repair are just a few of the processes that occur as we sleep. When we are awake, our metabolic reserves are pulled to the necessary processes that occur when we are awake (i.e. movement, cognitive processing). Without sleep, our body will continue to dedicate the available resources to the functions and processes involved in the wake cycle, and will not be able to perform the necessary functions of repair and restoration that occur in the sleep cycle. Over time, this WILL catch up with you. If you continue to deprive your body of necessary sleep, your health will suffer. Overtime, your immune system will be compromised, making you more susceptible to getting sick. You will be more likely to develop cancer and neurological issues. Oh, and don’t forget that you will age at a much faster rate than your peers that are getting their necessary Zzzz’s!
If you are a leader in your organization, you perhaps have even more reason to get adequate sleep. Studies have indicated that sleep-deprived leaders are more likely to act unethically, express more aggression at work, are more likely to blame others for their own mistakes and engage in abusive leadership practices. Wow! How does sleep affect our behavior and even our management style? Sleep deprivation has been shown to affect the functioning of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is involved with self-regulation.
Let’s face it, stress and pressures from the job and personal factors affect every one of us. Some of us are better than others at coping with the stress, and others of us really struggle. At some point, nearly all of us will have periods of time when the stress overpowers our ability to cope. This can happen slowly over time. As stress increases, we may cut out or avoid good behaviors like eating healthy, exercise, getting enough sleep, spending time with loved ones, taking time off of work, etc. These good behaviors get replaced with behaviors that allow us to still “feel good”, but require less effort such as binge watching mindless television, eating junk food late at night, and increasing our alcohol consumption.
Overtime, not only do we replace our healthy behaviors with unhealthy behaviors, but our body will actually start to crave the bad behaviors. And guess what, these behaviors can cause poor sleep habits, insomnia, and disrupted sleep quality.
When humans partake in healthy behaviors like going for a jog or a walk, practicing mindfulness, taking small breaks during a busy day to breathe, and so forth, our bodies initiate some pretty amazing chemical reactions. For example, when you take 20-30 minutes to go for a walk, nitric oxide is released from your cells. When nitric oxide is released it stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for the feelings of happiness and joy. Dopamine is also an important neurotransmitter for sleep!
Tips for increasing your sleep quality:
1. Set a bedtime and don’t waiver from it for two weeks. Set a bedtime that will give you seven to eight hours of sleep. Be realistic. If you have trouble falling asleep, build in an extra hour to help quiet your mind and body. Once you set the time, do not give yourself permission to change it for at least the first two weeks.
2. Avoid stimuli like the television or computer work once you go to bed. If you are used to falling asleep to the television, try reading as an alternative.
3. If you have trouble “winding down” before bedtime, try taking a hot shower or bath. You can also try a decaffeinated cup of hot tea prior to bedtime to help you get into the zone of relaxation.
4. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and sugar close to bedtime as these can disrupt sleep.
5. Consider measuring your sleep. Smart phone apps, smart watches, and even old fashion pen to paper journaling are effective ways to help monitor the amount of sleep you are getting.
6. Spouses and loved ones can also be a great barometer of our sleep quality...simply ask them if they are noticing a difference in your overall mood, demeanor, energy level, etc.
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