Whether you’re an elite athlete reaching for that next personal record, or like most of us who are simply trying to stay a little more focused in our day jobs, there’s a good chance that you’re doing your best to achieve that, except for perhaps the most critical element—getting enough sleep.
While World Sleep Day is observed on March 17, our need for quality shut-eye is a never-ending daily affair, so M&F spoke with Louisa Nicola, who is a former triathlete and the director of Neuro Athletics, to get the skinny on shut-eye.
Nicola was involved in a serious car accident that threatened to end her sporting career all too early, but she was able to accelerate her recovery by adding brain training to her physiological rehabilitation. Since then, Nicola has helped countless athletes and individuals to leverage neuroscience as a way to reach their potential, and says that sleep is one of the most overlooked and yet vital factors for firing on all cylinders.
We took a deep dive into what this means for all of us:
What Really Is Sleep?
With our increasingly busy lifestyles, in which our brains seem to be incessantly wired into one device or another, many of us have lost track of what sleep actually is. Sure, it’s that part of the night, or day for some people, in which we have to put down tools and take a break from the various stimuli all around us, but what many of us have forgotten is that good rest is essential for functioning properly over the long term of our everyday lives.
“Sleep is a natural biological process that all mammals go through, where the brain is ‘switched off’ for a certain period of time,” says Nicola, who asserts that there is more to this than simply checking off a box. Those with a good fitness tracker may already know that sleep is generally made up of four stages, and a good night’s shut-eye should typically be divided into 20-25% for REM (Rapid Eye Movement sleep, where dreams tend to occur) and 13-20% Deep Sleep (where brain waves are at their slowest), but other than those percentages may not know the complete importance of quality sleep has on our overall health.
The Importance of Great Sleep
While all stages are essential, deep sleep brings physiological and mental benefits; releasing growth hormone and repairing muscle and bones. REM sleep is important for memory consolidation and emotional processing. It stands to reason then, that without spending enough time within these stages, we will run into difficulties. “Some of the symptoms are waking up with brain fog, for example,” says Nicola. “Or you’ve got a cloudy mind or a cloudy brain, you wake up, you just know that you’ve probably not had the best sleep. You feel irritable, you’re finding that you’ve got a short fuse, you’re finding that you’re maybe crying or you’re not having good emotional regularity.”
Nicola adds that the purpose of sleep is to make us feel energized for the day ahead, and a lack of rest will have negative impacts not just limited to mood, but also including a lack of physical recovery for the tasks at hand. Then, there are some very serious issues to contemplate. “Eventually, you’re accelerating yourself toward neurological illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and other types of neurodegenerative diseases,” says Nicola of foregoing adequate rest.
What Can Sabotage Your Sleep?
“Light exposure, so looking at a screen before bedtime,” says Nicola. Other factors, she says, include “alcohol, food, temperature, all of these things that are not aiding in enabling us to have a quality sleep.”
The timing of caffeine is really important too. There’s a hormone that gets built up during the day called adenosine. We end up getting sleepy from it. Caffeine is an adenosine blocker and keeps us alert and awake. The problem with caffeine is not so much how much you have, but when you have it. Just like drugs, caffeine has a half-life, normally about 12 hours. So, if you’re going to be having it at 3 p.m., it’s going to keep you awake for 12 hours after that. You want to make sure you’re having caffeine before noon every day, so then you can start to wind down and get to sleep.
Other drugs that affect you are not just illicit drugs but also psychiatric drugs. An SSRI, for example; antidepressant of any type, kicks you out of REM sleep. “People drink alcohol, and they think that it’s helping them sleep, but it’s not,” Nicola says. “It’s just sedating them.”
Then there’s napping. While napping may help us to reduce our sleep deficit, it also plays havoc with our natural rhythm. “When you nap throughout the day, it takes away from your sleep pressure,” says Nicola. “So, throughout the day, you are building up adenosine. This builds up sleep pressure to the point in which you just feel tired. And that’s where the pressure takes over. But if you have a nap, you’re taking away from the sleep pressure. If you nap during the day, you’re not going to be as tired at night.”
What Is the Right Amount for Adults?
“Sleep needs to be activated for at least eight hours per night on a regular basis,” says Nicola, pointing out that this is the necessary amount of time for the brain, nervous system, immunity system, and various other processes to do their thing. She points to studies that have been conducted in which sleep deprivation has been analyzed at 5.7 hours of sleep. It showed that negative consequences occur within our genes, making them more susceptible to tumors and disease. “The sweet spot is eight hours, because that’s how long it takes for you to go through the cycles of sleep—light, deep, and REM sleep,” she says.
How to Assess Your Sleep
Nicola says that one of the simplest ways to assess your sleep performance is to simply ask yourself how you are feeling. “You should feel content in terms of; you’re not overly energetic, but you’re also not lethargic. You just feel great,” says Nicola. “Where your mind is working, your mind is clear, you’re on a path, you’re motivated. You’re excited. And you feel like, ‘OK, I can conquer the day!’”
If you want to monitor the stages of sleep on a more technical level, there are a wealth of fitness wristbands, watches, and rings that will give you a score each morning based on your performance.
How to Best Optimize Your Sleep
“So, I generally say that if you want to be a sleep champion, get in bed at 9.30 pm,” advises Nicola. “If you have trouble falling asleep, you want to work on ways to decompress your mind and get more relaxed and alleviate stress. You can do this by meditation or by journaling, getting all the bad thoughts out of your head.”
When it comes to great sleep, Nicola says that failing to plan is like planning to fail. “The very first thing should be getting on a consistent sleep plan, which is, every single day, making sure that you’re sleeping at least eight hours a day,” she says. “So, that’s a consistent effort, and a consistent approach to sleep just like brushing your teeth every day. And then it’s about, well, what time should I be going to sleep consistently (to get 8 hours)? We’ve got to take into account shift workers, doctors, people who are up all night working. But once we consistently sleeping, then it’s okay. Ask yourself ‘what time should I be asleep?’ With consistency, they’re going to be having a much better output the following day, and a much better sleep the following night. So first it is consistency and then timing of sleep.”
Of course, many of us have trouble switching off, so Nicola’s advice about winding down is vital, and she also says that to move us in the right direction, magnesium and warm baths are of great help. As we cool down, our bodies will be primed for sleep. “Taking temperature into consideration, minimizing light exposure from 8 p.m. onwards, so you can tell your brain that you’re switching off, not eating three hours prior to going to bed,” are significant in the quest for great sleep,” she says.