Our culture prizes 'the hustle' and glorifies the all-nighter. Some people even brag they can live on 4 or 5 hours of sleep. But the research contradicts these braggadocios claims. Setting aside a tiny minority of people who have a rare genetic mutation, we all need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep.
But it's not just quantity that matters. Quality plays a huge role. Things like traveling, light exposure, and noise all interrupt sleep. And today, most people are operating in sleep deficit. In fact, since the invention of electric light, we're getting on average 2 hours of sleep less than our ancestors.
We know objectively that many of us aren't getting enough sleep. And if we pay attention, we'll know it subjectively too. There's no area of the human experience not negatively affected by sleep deprivation -- including cognitive, physical, and health performance. Our bodies tell the story.
But the narrative of hustle and grind is so strong that it overwhelms our nature. Plus, we're easily distracted by entertainment that's never been more easily accessible. We're up against a difficult task to take back our sleep. But we can do it with intentionality.
Let's take a look at some of the interesting facts about sleep. Then allow this truth to guide your sleep habits.
Unfamiliar Environments Prevent Proper Sleep
Have you ever had the experience of coming home after a holiday and needing a few days to recover? We all have, and there's good reason for it.
It's not just that you've partied too much or that you were busy on the holiday. In fact, if you tracked your time spent on vacation, you'd probably find you had more rest time than at home. It's the type of sleep you're getting on the road that causes you to feel exhausted upon return.
Our brains evolved to do many things. One of the most important is threat detection. And being in an unfamiliar environment, our brains are on low level alert for threats. In this threat detection mode, half our brain doesn't sleep as deeply as it does in the familiar environment of our own bed.
International travel and the globetrotting lifestyle entrepreneur may be fun ideals. But at the core, these may also be causing short and long term negative consequences. Keep this in mind as you optimize your sleep. What's best for you is likely sleeping in the same bed, in your home, as often as possible.
Sedation isn't Sleep
Wake up, drink coffee, hustle hard, run to the next thing, and stimulate your mind all day. That's normal today's world. At home, most of us watch TV, a movie, or just stare at our phones. It's constant stimulation all day, every day.
Given this reality, it's no wonder so many people reach for a few glasses of wine or use cannabis at night. While alcohol is a classic depressant, cannabis is different. However, in many people it does cause tiredness and sedation, much like a depressant. So for the sake of sleep we should think of them similarly.
After using both alcohol and cannabis, you may feel drowsy and tired. But sedation isn't the same as healthy, natural sleep. And it appears that people using these drugs as sleep aids are interfering with healthy, natural sleep.
There are 4 main phases of sleep. And, while every stage is vital, alcohol and cannabis appear to suppress REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Of the two, alcohol has been studied more. But many researchers believe cannabis is causing the same REM sleep suppression that alcohol does.
REM sleep is our dream state. And the brain don't like losing REM sleep. In fact, it keeps an internal tally of how much REM sleep we've had. If REM sleep is suppressed, the brain doesn't forget. This is why regular alcohol drinkers and cannabis users report dreaming much more when they pause or stop usage. The brain 'wants' REM sleep and will 'take it back.'
The most extreme case is that of chronic alcoholism, where eventually, many addicts experience a condition known as delirium tremens. The sufferer hallucinates and has rapid onset of total confusion. It's as though the brain will layer the dream state overtop waking reality and the sufferer loses all ability to experience normal waking reality.
Of course, the loss of REM sleep isn't as catastrophic in the average person drinking a couple of glasses of wine at night. But the lesson remains the same. Using alcohol or cannabis as a sleep aid isn't the best idea. It's far better to create a healthy sleep environment and habits. Seek out healthy, natural sleep rather than sedation.
If, like many, you enjoy cannabis or alcohol in moderation, try to not to use them daily. And use them in such a way that their effects wear off before bed most of the time.
The Brain Uses Sleep For Problem-Solving and Mastery
In English we, "sleep on," difficult problems. The French say, "sleep with it." And it appears every language has a similar version of this expression.
Have you ever had the experience of going to sleep with what seems like an intractable problem? Then when you wake up, the problem has solved itself? Where the conscious mind fails, the subconscious, sleep-repaired mind thrives.
What about the experience of working to master a skill? Have you ever pushed yourself hard at the skill and felt like you were getting nowhere? Then you come back the next day and find you've improved exponentially?
The experience leaves you wondering what happened, as you know you didn't do any more work. Musicians commonly report struggling to master a piece of music, sleeping on it, then being exponentially better the next day.
There is a good reason for this common experience. Researchers have found that the brain 'practices' new skills while we sleep. It sounds far fetched, but it's true.
Studies on rats have provided insight into how this works. Scientists placed electrodes in rats' brains to measure the firing of neurons while rats solve complex problems like navigating a maze. As the rat practices and learns the maze, the neurons fire in a pattern. It's as though the rat is forming an internal map, which is then visualized by the electrodes firing.
By the time the rat gets to the end of the maze, the pattern is complete. But how does the rat remember this pattern? And how do we remember to do complex things?
Here's where the rat studies get crazy. Researchers kept the electrodes in the rats' brains after the rats went to sleep, where they detected the exact same pattern of firing electrodes as when they were actively navigating the maze. But, while sleeping, this pattern fired 20 times faster than when awake. Imagine how much practice you could get in if you could do it at 20x speed. Well, you can. This is the brain's normal functioning while asleep.
This shows us that the best method for improving at anything is to work hard, practice, but then get plenty of sleep. Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice + sleep makes perfect.
How Sleep Leads to Creativity
Many areas of the brain are more active during sleep. But the prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is important, because the prefrontal cortex houses the brain's 'executive function.' As Wikipedia puts is, "The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals."
Remember when you were a kid and you didn't have internal goals? When you did everything for what felt good in the moment? Kids are like this because their prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed. In fact, it's not developed fully until we're 25. This explains why almost all risky behavior is by people under 25.
So, as adults in our normal waking state, the prefrontal cortex filters information and plans like an executive 'in control' of the machine. But, when we sleep, with our prefrontal cortex shut down, our brains are free to make new connections again.
Struggling to feel creative? Maybe you just need to sleep more.
One of the most creative humans ever to have lived, Thomas Edison, used sleep as a powerful creative aid. In fact, he developed his own sleep-centered practice for maximizing creativity.
Sitting in his armchair, he would hold a steel ball bearing in each hand. Letting his hands hang over the edge of the armrests, he placed steel plates below. He'd then allow himself to get drowsy, fall asleep, and drop the ball bearings. They would make a loud clanging sound as they landed on the steel plates. Naturally, he then woke up.
When awake, he would write down every creative idea that came to his mind. Effectively, he used the enormous power of his subconscious mind and pulled out creative ideas.
How Else Does Sleep Impact Performance?
Rather than trying to list all of sleep's benefits, it's easier to make the following statement: sleep is vital to every single area of performance and health.
But we need to update our belief system and overcome the hustle and grind mentality that isn't serving us. So it's worth talking about a few specifics, as they're more memorable than blanket statements. So let's look at a few more amazing facts about sleep:
- You're 30% quicker to physical exhaustion on 6 hours of sleep or less than a full night's sleep
- Lactic acid builds up quicker in your body when sleep deprived
- The lungs ability to expire carbon dioxide drops rapidly with sleep deprivation
- Anything below 7 hours of sleep leads to objectively measurable impairments in body and brain performance
- Muscle strength, vertical leap, and every physical measure are better with more sleep
- Having 5 hours of sleep versus 9 leads to a 60% increase in injury rates
- SAT scores were found to go up in the range of 15% with better sleep
- People who sleep 5-6 hours per night will, on average, eat 200-300 calories more per day - over a year that adds up to 10-15 pounds of obese mass
- Short sleep predicts all cause mortality, so living in sleep deprivation you'll be dead sooner and have a lower quality of life
- Chronic sleep deprivation leads to Alzheimer's -- both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher bragged about their need for little sleep and both suffered Alzheimer's late in life
Too many of us subscribe to the ethos of constant hustle and all nighters. In doing so, we're depriving ourselves of sleep and putting ourselves at risk of multiple negative health and performance outcomes. And ironically, we're negatively impacting our ability to achieve the lofty goals we assumed would come from 'the hustle.'
Get lots of sleep and get healthy sleep.