Reaping the Rewards of Sleep

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by Daniel Jin Blum, PhD

Most of us reap the rewards of sleep without realizing that sleep is the foundational element fueling our health. It’s only when sleep gets knocked out of alignment that we suddenly realize how valuable our sleep is; when we don’t get enough, we feel more irritable and less focused.

Part of the challenge is that many of the effects of sleep lie between barely perceptible to outside of conscious awareness. This is particularly so when the effects accumulate gradually over time.

With less sleep we can become quite good at functioning on autopilot, without engaging fully in life, and performing suboptimally.

We may notice the effects of drastic changes in sleep, yet the impact this has on our physical and mental processes can remain hidden. With the human capacity of adaptability, we tend to quickly shift our frame of reference to match our sleep-deprived states. While this is an incredibly helpful mechanism to get us through rough patches in the short-term, it can inadvertently perpetuate the perception that we can “function on less sleep.” The truth is that we can “function” on less sleep, but at levels far below our potential and for a much shorter time.

Choosing to fully be in the present moment at all times requires intention, effort, practice, and sleep. Practicing being in the present moment can be difficult for some people since it can be challenging and even painful to change habitual patterns. Noticing each moment can also be very scary. If we begin to notice each thought, sensation, or interaction, it can expose us to things we prefer not to see.

But just like a tough hike to a gorgeous vista, the work and the moments along the way, both pleasant and unpleasant, contribute to greater enjoyment in the end.

Gather knowledge about all of the benefits of sleep—the more you know and understand, the more incentives you will have to prioritize sleep when other activities compete for your attention. Let’s start with learning about the most crucial ways our body and mind benefit from sleep.

Nourishes Cardiovascular Health

The heart, like all of the muscles in the body, requires “down time” to recover.

Even though it continues to pump through the night, sufficient uninterrupted sleep provides a critical period of recovery. During this time, your heart can reduce its workload—measured in both heart rate and blood pressure—because it does not have to contend with gravity or with supplying oxygenated blood to multiple bodily processes that have slowed during sleep.

If, however, you work your heart tirelessly day and night, you expose yourself to an increased risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease (the current leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States). Reducing your sleep even by a couple of hours per night can dramatically increase your risk for heart failure, and research shows that getting less than six hours of sleep per night can double the risk for having a stroke or heart attack.

Repairs Musculoskeletal System

Ever wonder why babies and kids need so much sleep?

Everything in your body from your limbs to your heart requires periods of sustained renewal.

Sleep is essential to unlocking bone, muscle, and tissue development as well as repair. In this state of postural recumbence, our bones are no longer fighting the compression of gravity and are free to elongate, particularly during adolescence. The human body enhances this opportunity by releasing growth hormone (GH) to maximize this essential period of physical inactivity. Even when you are not in an active growth spurt, nighttime rest gives your muscles time to relax and repair.

Without sufficient time to rest, muscles accumulate greater mileage, wear out faster, and leave us prone to injuries at a greater frequency and duration.

Flushes Out Brain Toxins

One of the most recent findings on sleep functions is that sleep clears the brain of harmful toxins built up throughout the day. The brain is one of the most energy intensive organs in the body for its size based on how much glucose it burns. As with any major processing center, running all day produces some residual waste that accumulates in the brain.

When we sleep, our brains power down extraneous processes, which allows large swaths of neurons to rest. Nightly rest for your brain cells helps maintain the sensitivity of the receptors that facilitate intercellular communication. Resting neurons also create space for cerebral spinal fluid to rush into the brain and flush out protein buildup. Similar to ocean tides washing a beach clear of footprints and debris, this fluid flows into the crevices of your brain and rinses out the toxins.

When you are not getting enough sleep, then you are essentially building up this particularly dangerous toxin called beta-amyloid. Singularly, beta-amyloid is merely a fragment of a larger protein used in the brain. However, this byproduct is particularly sticky and clumps together forming plaques in the brain, the same plaques that are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the science is new, it appears that improving sleep reduces beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, which in essence could reduce one’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Boosts Immune Function

Have you ever found yourself getting sick after a big exam or project deadline? It’s because your immune system has been significantly weakened from stress and lack of sleep. Proper sleep not only allows us to defend against oncoming illnesses, it also provides the right balance for building immunities for future infections. Uninterrupted sleep allows our bodies to balance the levels of immune defenses. When that process is interrupted, the first lines of defense—our ability to increase the inflammatory response to fight infection and the ability to recognize infected cells—are significantly compromised.

The intention is that if we build our awareness around sleep health, we become more incentivized to prioritize sleep amidst the numerous demands that vie for our time and attention.

When you lose even one hour of sleep each night for a week, your immune function can be suppressed by up to 44% of normal rates. If your sleep loss continues unabated, as happens with many people with busy jobs or children, this deficit can jump to a 97% decrease in antibody production after just one month of partial sleep loss.

From the cellular to the interpersonal levels, sleep is the foundation of our health and one of the cornerstones of living well.

The countless hours we spend studying for school, pursuing our craft, or practicing a hobby pale in comparison to the time we actually sleep. Sleep enhances all of these activities, and yet, it is often the first item we sacrifice when we feel busy or overwhelmed.

Whether physical or mental, getting enough sleep will help us operate at our highest potentials across several domains. And in a world that’s demanding us to perform ever more, getting the proper sleep can help us maximize our ability to not only feel better, but also allow us to work smarter and become more resilient.

— Excerpt from Sleep Wise: How to Feel Better, Work Smarter, and Build Resilience.

Dan practices with Wake Up San Francisco. You can join him on March 23 at 11:00am Pacific Time for a free 30-minute webinar when he’ll discuss behavioral and mindfulness practices you can use tonight to improve your sleep. Register here >>

Reprinted with permission from Parallax Press

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