Have you ever noticed how new years’ resolutions often have a tendency to be a bit punishing? It’s as though, if it doesn’t involve denial, massive amounts of will power, self-control and self-flagellation with a good dose of misery thrown in then we really are not trying hard enough!
Whilst cutting down on booze, hitting the gym and stepping away from the cheeseboard are all worthy resolutions that are likely to make us healthier, there is something else which rarely features on the resolution list despite it being something which many of us are not getting right. This is something which is vital to our health, wellbeing and our very survival, something which when we get it right makes us feel happier, more positive, better able to make decisions, reduces our health risks and helps us maintain our weight. Best of all, whilst this is something which can elude us and may not always be easy to achieve, on the self-kindness/self-flagellation scale, it’s definitely at the kindness end. I am, of course, talking about sleep.
It is a modern-day phenomenon that we have taken something essential to our survival and associated it with laziness, a nice to have luxury and even a sign of weakness, with some proclaiming that they can survive on five hours a night (they can’t) and wearing their sleep deprived state of continual busyness as a badge of honour. In Japan, it is not considered rude to fall asleep at the dinner table, it is instead viewed as an honourable display of how hard you have worked that you are so tired you literally cannot stay awake.
The view that ‘sleep is for the weak’ is fuelled by so called successful people sharing their gruelling schedules and handy hints on how, you too, can be more productive. A recent Wall Street Journal article, horrifyingly titled ‘Why 4am is the most productive hour’, (did you know Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his morning routine at 3:45 a.m?!) did just this. The article details the daily routines of executives and general high flyers, some of whom seem to average six hours sleep per night and is full of phrases such as getting ahead, jump starting the day and trying to beat the daily chaos. Basically these ‘successful’ people are all trying to minimise the massive interruption to their busy lives that a good night’s sleep involves.
In another extreme example, Mark Whalberg recently shared his daily schedule which involves waking at 2.30am to work out. In fact, a lot of this early rising and trying to get ahead of the day is related to trying to fit in exercise and this is something I am very conscious of as a Personal Trainer. The Wall Street Journal article contains a life hack from a 4am rising entrepreneur who sleeps in his gym clothes and puts his trainers on within 10 seconds of waking up so he can fit in his workout. If a client confessed this to me I would send them home to bed immediately!
Seriously though, as part of my lifestyle consultation process I ask all my clients about their sleep and generally many would be classed as ‘sleep-deprived’. I believe on overall health balance taking away sleep to fit in exercise is just cancelling out any benefits. That is why my earliest slot is 7am! If you think this is over the top then just think about the fact that whilst you are sleeping your cells are producing growth hormone for your bones and muscles, and what are you trying to achieve in the gym? – exactly!
Sleep deprivation constitutes anything less than seven hours a night, which I for one found surprising. Some of us need more (me!) and some less, with most of us probably needing around eight hours, but if you are getting less than seven hours sleep a night then there you have it – you are sleep deprived.
So, what does this mean for our health? Well, we all know how dreadful we feel after a bad night’s sleep, irritable, moody, unable to concentrate, incapable of making any kind of decision, especially when it comes to good choices around food but that is just the short term. Over the longer term a lack of sleep is linked with many serious health conditions including a weakened immune system, obesity, dementia, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety.
The link between sleep deprivation and obesity is something that is particularly relevant for those looking to achieve fat loss as it is thought that lack of sleep interferes with our satiated and hunger stimulating hormones i.e. if you are sleep deprived you have reduced levels of leptin (which makes you feel satiated) and increased levels of ghrelin (which makes you feel hunger). This is certainly something I can relate to from my sleep-deprived baby rearing days when I was permanently hungry and craving foods that would make me feel awake i.e. sugar and caffeine (obviously the opposite of what my body actually needed).
The truth is that today’s non-stop world of constant distraction, bright lights and stress is not particularly compatible with our internal clocks that interpret when it’s time to wake and when its time to sleep, otherwise known as our circadian rhythms. Ideally a day of being outdoors getting plenty of light and a calm, dark and stimulant free evening will provide all of the signals our brains need to trigger the sleep hormone melatonin. However, how many of us (especially at this time of year) travel to work in the dark, sit in an office, drive home in the dark and barely see the light of day? How many of us then spend an evening on a screen or getting stressed over work or angry at the news? All things which are not helping the signals to our brains that it is time to sleep, in fact quite the opposite.
This is the world we live in and it can be hard to prioritise sleep but recognising the serious consequences of sleep deprivation and rejecting the ‘too busy to sleep’ culture is something we can all try to do by making a new year’s resolution to get our 8 hours in 2019. So, try and get outside during the day and take in the light (what there is of it in January!), switch off those devices, dim the lights and signal to your body that its time for sleep because what really makes us successful is being healthy and happy (not uber productive and sleep deprived!), oh and please don’t go to sleep in your gym kit!