Under normal circumstances, few of us would go for long stretches of time without eating – or eating enough. None of us can last long without breathing. Yet plenty of folks seem to think they can do with minimal sleep and still stay healthy and productive.
Just as we need food and air, we need sleep. Optimally, we need quality sleep. Short, light bursts of it can get us through, of course – just like junk food and polluted air can sustain us, but at significant long-term cost to our health and well-being.
In fact, as integrative physician Dr. Frank Shallenberger wrote in a recent newsletter, sleep quality actually matters more than sleep quantity.
In 2002, a study published out of Johns Hopkins Medical School was able to show that being sleepy in the day is strictly a matter of whether or not there was a disturbance in the deeper stages of sleep. When something disturbs the lighter stages of sleep, there is no sleepiness during the day. And this is what ties the results of the Three City and the Nurses’ Health studies together. It’s not how much sleep you get that is important; it’s how much time you spend in the deeper stages of sleep.
During those deep stages, your body is at its most relaxed. Brain waves, breathing and heart rate are at their slowest. Muscles relax most fully. Dreaming is common. And though it seems like nothing much is happening, plenty is happening. Old tissues are sloughed off as new ones are built. Your lymph system moves toxins out of the cells and extracellular matrix (the biological terrain) to be excreted. Hormones are mobilized. Memory consolidates important information. We process our day’s experience through dreaming.
You can think of sleep as the opportunity for your body (and mind) to do routine maintenance so it can function as effectively and efficiently as possible throughout the day. Deep sleep is when most of it happens.
Lethargy, lack of focus and crankiness are the most obvious symptoms of insufficient sleep, but they’re hardly the most significant result. Research has shown strong links between sleep loss and inflammatory conditions such as heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, stroke and diabetes. Lack of sleep has also been shown to lower your sex drive, interfere with memory and learning, age your skin, contribute to obesity, weaken immune function…
And unfortunately, a long snooze once in a while simply can’t make up for the chronic sleep deficit many of us run. About 1/3 of adults average 6 hours of sleep or less – vs. the recommended 8 – and nearly 2/3 experience some kind of sleep problem a few nights a week.
If it were quality sleep, though, it might not matter quite so much. Dr. Shallenberger again:
If you sleep only five hours, but 20% of your sleep is in the deep stages, you had one hour of deep-stage sleep. On the other hand, if you slept a full eight hours, but only 10% of that was deep stage, then you had 48 minutes of deep sleep — 20% less than on your five-hour night.
So how can you improve the quality of your sleep?
A good place to start is by developing a sleep routine. Have a regular bedtime each night – even on weekends – and a regular time for waking. Consistency goes a long way towards minimizing any problems you have with getting to sleep or staying asleep.
For more suggestions, see 17 Expert Tips for Better Sleep.
Sometimes, sleep quality can be dragged down by chronic bruxing (clenching and grinding), sleep apnea and other problems – many of which can be addressed dentally through splint therapy. If these are an issue for you, let your dentist know. We can often be of help.
Images by Amanda G & Chris March, via Flickr