So What is Sleep Exactly?

It is that thing you do at the end of your day when there is nothing else to do silly!

In all seriousness, it is arguably the most important part of your day…when it comes to your health. During the day is when all your decisions and actions are made but during the night is when your body restores to make the decision and action seamless into the following day. Sleep services our brain and our body. To this point, there is not one organ or process within the brain that isn’t enhanced when optimal sleep is had, and conversely isn’t adversely affected when insufficient sleep is had.

Sleep permits a broad array of restorative functions in the brain including recalibrating our emotional circuits, allowing us to be calmer and more rational the following day around psychological challenges. If you’ve ever had too little sleep then forced into a stressful situation the following day, you’ll know firsthand how much harder it is to make calm, considered, rational decisions. It promotes our ability to learn, memorise and make logical decisions – the last two books I have written I’ve started whilst my wife is pregnant and finished when bub is earthside. I know that once I enter the sleep-deprived state post birth which can last for several months, then my ability to focus, drops off the edge of a cliff. Finishing the book is like walking through treacle in oversized gumboots.

Sleep replenishes the immune system, strengthening your defence against infection, viruses, and disease. It helps to regulate appetite and blood glucose levels – all very important in the fight against fat accumulation. In essence, adequate sleep is beneficial to all facets of your physiology and neurology. The effects of a single night of poor sleep are felt with more gravity than the effects of not exercising or not eating right for a day.

I haven’t pulled too many all-nighters in my life, but one is etched in my memory as being one of the most uncomfortable nights I’ve ever had. Around 2007 I signed up for a 105 km race in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. The course, albeit only 105 km was very undulating but I was fit back then and eager for the challenge. We had to set out in teams of 4 and had to cross the line with two other teammates – allowing for one teammate to drop-out. Approaching the second checkpoint at 33kms one team member had a full emotional and physical meltdown and sat himself down on the boulders, refusing to continue. After some coaching and encouragement, we got him to his feet and positioned him at the front of our 4-man pack. We scaled the infamous Golden Staircase to reach checkpoint two and that team member mentioned earlier supped on hot minestrone soup and graciously bailed out. As the three remaining members set off for checkpoint 3 walking along narrow neck ridge with a full moon above us illuminating our path, I thought to myself how lucky we were to be walking through this national park being guided by the moon, I was in a good place mentally and physically. Several strides later, something ‘went’ in my ankle, nothing catastrophic but enough to force me to alter my gait. This change led to a debilitating knee injury a few km later. I still had 35kms to walk. As the night wore on I completely lost my ability to have rational thoughts and stay calm or positive – often freaking out (internally) that I couldn’t keep walking on this knee but I didn’t want to let the team down. I was a little shocked, if I’m honest, as to my mental state and how my mood was pretty dark for the remaining walk – largely down to the lack of sleep as we trudged all through the night. We finally limped over the finish line, a line I’ve never been so relieved to cross. In hindsight, I wished I had run/jogged/walked the course to reduce the hours spent on the course and perhaps finish it before sleep deprivation really kicked in. I haven’t done a race of this nature since!

Both my sons were born in the morning with labour going on through the night which is somewhat unfair in my opinion…it’s monumental what the mothers’ body has to endure to deliver the baby let alone contend with diminished pain threshold and pain tolerance due to sleep deprivation. Needless to say, we are both hoping our third child starts to enter this world during the day this time around.

How much to enough sleep?

This is dependent on what stage of life you’re at but for adults, it’s no fewer than 7 hours and for children no fewer than 9 hours. So, in a perfect world, we frame our evening and morning routine to encourage a minimum 7-hour sleep-window. But what happens if something happens and this plan gets challenged – well unsurprisingly you will incur a sleep debt.

However, fear not, you can recover this debt and pay it back by going to bed earlier the next night or napping the fowling day. It’s not like you even have to set a reminder either, your body’s own chemistry will drive an increased propensity to sleep earlier the next night to catch up on sleep.
The trick is to listen to the urge and not do one more episode of a Netflix series.

Is there such a thing of too much sleep?

No…oh wait …damn, that is not right…that was my subconscious writing. In a nutshell too much or little sleep is problematic. Studies show that individuals consistently having too little sleep are more likely to die early than those who sleep around 7-8hours night consistently. Similarly, those individuals who consistently sleep for 10-11 hours are also likely to have a shorter life. This paradigm is known as “Get enough but don’t be greedy” aka the “U curve of sleep and longevity.”

Can I drink coffee?

Of course, you can, hell I’m not a philistine. How many coffees you have and when you have them is crucial though. Coffee has a half-life of six hours, meaning after 6 hours since you drank it you will have 1/2 the amount of caffeine still in your system. Furthermore, it has a 1/4 life of twelve hours. So, WHEN you have the final coffee of the day is important to your sleep (I’m talking to you now, mother!).
I’ve mentioned our diurnal nature and how melatonin increases in the evening urging us to sleep, but something else is at play. A chemical builds up in the brain over the course of the day until it creates a critical threshold and the desire to sleep is strong. This chemical is adenosine and is accumulating right this second and will continue to as you read more pages. It is the barometer for your biology, helping your body understand how much time has elapsed since you first woke up. The pressure builds to a crescendo around the 12-16 hour mark since wakening.

It’s possible to blunt the buildup of adenosine in the brain by taking a psychoactive drug – wait for it – called caffeine. Caffeine will compete for our adenosine receptors in our brain ultimately impacting the accumulation of the chemical. Making falling to sleep harder and staying asleep harder also. So please, by all means, have coffee, have two cups if you want but monitor when you’re having it and is it interfering with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Bottomline

Respect, honour and cherish your sleep to help support health and longevity.

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