HomeBodyHealthThe Ultimate Health Elixir — Catch Z’s To Improve Your Healthspan

The Ultimate Health Elixir — Catch Z’s To Improve Your Healthspan

The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span

We often prioritize work over rest in today’s fast-paced and productivity-driven world.

In the past, I chose to sleep less so that I could get more done. To me, sleep seemed like an obstacle to getting what I want to be done. In the end, I slept fewer and fewer hours as I tried to squeeze in more and more work.

At some point, I ended up sleeping 3 to 4 hours a night.

Needless to say, that was not sustainable. A mental fog clouded my judgment. I became less productive (ironically) and needed even more time to complete tasks.

But even then, I only upped my sleeping hours to 5 to 6 hours a night.

And I am definitely not the only one.

According to CDC, in 2020, 34.8% of Americans slept less than the recommended amount of hours.

It wasn’t until I read Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (this is an affiliate link to the book) that I realized that even after increasing the hours of sleep I was getting, I was chronically ‘under-sleeping’. Walker puts it best in this simple sentence (if you take away nothing else from this article, let this quote be the one thing you remember)

“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

Sleep Deprivation: The Silent Assassin

“but you may be surprised by the consequences. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

According to the CDC, adults aged between 18 and 60 should sleep 7 hours or more a night. For teenagers, the targeted amount of sleep is 8 to 10 hours every 24-hour cycle.

These recommendations are also shared by Sleep Foundation.

And as Walker writes, there is a good reason for these recommendations to be in place. When we experience a consistent lack of sleep, we end up facing a large number of devastating consequences to our physical health.

From lower glucose tolerance, higher evening cortisol concentration, and increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, sleep deprivation brings about a host of scary health issues.

When we don’t get enough sleep, the amount of stress hormones in our bodies increases. As a result, our resting heart rate and blood pressure increase.

And when this happens over an extended period, we end up with unwanted lasting impacts on our heart health, mental health, and cognitive abilities.

Furthermore, the recommended sleep amount refers to the amount of sleep we should be getting every night and not the average amount of sleep that we get per night.

Because many of us work during the weekdays and have less to do during the weekends, many of us rack up ‘sleep debts’ during the week, telling ourselves that we will just sleep in during the weekends. And while the average amount of sleep we get might reach 7 hours a night every week, this is not enough to ward off the ill effects of sleep deprivation.

When a study was done on older women (mean age of 72.1 ± 6.0 years), it was found that compared to women with no sleep debt (defined as the difference between weekday and weekend sleep duration of at least 2 hours), women with sleep debt were more likely to be obese and have hypertension.

Basically, it was found that sleep debt was significantly associated with poorer ‘ideal cardiovascular health’.

“Yet the insidious impact of sleep loss on health runs much deeper. Every major system, tissue, and organ of your body suffers when sleep becomes short. No aspect of your health can retreat at the sign of sleep loss and escape unharmed. Like water from a burst pipe in your home, the effects of sleep deprivation will seep into every nook and cranny of biology, down into your cells, even altering your most fundamental self — your DNA.” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

Sleep Loss Affects Cognitive Health As Well

“With chronic sleep restriction over months or years, an individual will actually acclimate to their impaired performance, lower alertness, and reduced energy levels. That low-level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognize how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health.” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

While no one knows for sure, recent research does suggest that a lack of sleep can play a causal role in both the development and maintenance of different mental health problems.

When a meta-analysis of 65 randomized controlled trials was done, it was found that improving sleep quality led to a significant medium-sized effect on composite mental health, depression, anxiety, and rumination, as well as significant small-to-medium sized effects on stress, and small significant effects on positive psychosis symptoms.

In the book, Walker also discussed the impacts of sleep deprivation on conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. He states that when we get insufficient sleep, amyloid plaques build up in the brain, especially in deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. Over a long period, this feedback loop of less deep sleep, more amyloid, and less deep sleep creates a situation where the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is increased.

At the same time, since prolonged sleep deprivation has been connected to changes in the brain such as reduced receptor sensitivity and changes in functional communication between brain regions, a connection might be drawn between sleep deprivation and mood changes such as increased anger and aggression.

If you sleep less, you become more easily irritable and prone to anger, making it more difficult to work with you.

Furthermore, since we get used to being sleep-deprived, we often fail to recognize signs of sleep deprivation, allowing the negative impacts of sleep deprivation on our mental health and focus to snowball.

“sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

The Final Word

“There are many ways in which a lack of sufficient sleep will kill you. Some take time; others are far more immediate.” — Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep

With all the negative impacts of sleep deprivation, it is obvious that we have to rethink our relationship with sleep.

Sleep shouldn’t be something that we see as a ‘distraction’ from our productive lives.

We have to prioritize sleep to ensure that we stay healthy, both physically and mentally.

And if you have trouble sleeping, keep these in mind before you head to bed:

  1. Avoid screens and blue lights as much as possible before sleep.
    From LED lights to smartphones and television screens, we are surrounded by sources of blue light. Unfortunately, because blue light stimulates parts of the brain that makes us feel alert, affecting our circadian rhythms, overexposure to these light sources makes us less sleepy. As such, aim to stop looking at screens before you get ready for bed and look for lamps that use warmer light sources.
  2. Don’t worry about how much sleep you are getting.
    Immediately after reading the book, I got into the stressful habit of counting the number of sleep hours I would get. Unsurprisingly, stressing out over how much sleep I am getting caused it to become harder to fall asleep and reduced the quality of sleep I was getting.
  3. Lower the surrounding temperature for sleep.
    While this varies from person to person, experts have found that the best room temperature for sleep is around 18.3 degrees Celsius (or 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Of course, if getting your room to this temperature is not possible, look for ways to air your room and keep it as cool as possible.
  4. Avoid caffeine in the later parts of the day.
    If you are anything like me, you would go around boasting that caffeine does nothing to affect your sleep quality. However, given the fact that it takes 4 to 6 hours to clear half of the caffeine absorbed by your body, this is a risk that you shouldn’t be taking if you already have trouble falling asleep. Incidentally, scientists have found that only 10% of the population has limited sensitivity to caffeine.
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