A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book, according to one Irish Proverb. Laughter does indeed affect our physical and mental well being, but outside of breathing and drinking water, nothing is more essential to our overall functioning than sleep. Whereas someone can be without food for several days before starving to death, going without sleep for more than 48 hours will make the toughest of insomniacs crash. They won't die, but they'll start to slur their speech, hallucinate, and fall in and out of mini-slumbers every fifteen seconds or so.
That's because sleep is responsible for so many of our vital functions. From our cognitive abilities, like problem solving and memory, to our immune function and DNA repair, sleep is responsible for how our bodies operate on a daily basis. Neurotransmitters replenish during sleep and the stores of our vital energy molecule, ATP, build up for another day's use. Wounds heal and muscles repair during sleep, and people who get regular and adequate amounts perform better in their daily lives, having less pain, less tension, and less stress than those consistently missing a good night's rest.
Missing even a little bit of sleep nightly can have an enormous impact on our health. The effects of sleep are cumulative, so consistently getting less than we need determines how we perform at work, our mental sharpness, and our ability to heal. Deprivation makes us more susceptible to illness and injury, so if your injury prone or find yourself sick a lot, then maybe several good night's rest is exactly what you need to turn that around.
Going into every benefit of sleep (yes, there's more!) would be more than a newsletter like this can handle. But what I can do instead is discuss the most common side effects I see within my practice in those who get inadequate sleep. The three most common things I encounter are: increased colds and flu, increased fatigue and moodiness, and decreased healing.
The first – increased colds and flu – is due to the depression of the immune system. Studies have shown such a strong correlation between sleep and immune function that our national space program has been studying the effects of sleep deprivation on the development and transmission of infectious diseases. I find that the people in my practice who are most often sick are the ones that most frequently burn the midnight oil. No finger pointing here – we all push ourselves to the limit at some time or another – but when somebody tells me they are sick, nine times out of ten, they'll also admit to being physically worn out. Personally, I almost always get sick whenever I stay up too late finishing my pressing projects – like partying with TiVo and such (oh, the shame, the shame).
The next most common thing I see in people who are not getting enough sleep is increased fatigue and moodiness. I know that increased fatigue, or sleepiness, might seem obvious, but I also know a lot of people who mostly get enough sleep, and who also think that losing an hour here or there doesn't really bother them. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Losing a little sleep every night adds up, and the effects can creep up on you subtly. REM sleep is essential to cognitive and memory functions, so deprivation can lead to mental sluggishness, decreased complex problem solving abilities, and even routine tasks such as driving, using machinery, or handling tools can become impaired. Studies done on college students have shown that those who pull “all nighters” consistently demonstrate poorer test scores than their well-rested counterparts. If you are trying to learn a new skill – a language or a new piece of software, say – you will do much better if you're well rested.
As far as moodiness is concerned, this isn't a big surprise: people who are not well rested have a harder time tolerating challenges – like other people, traffic, or poor table service – you know, the stuff we've all got to put up with from time to time. But worse yet, since sleep is the time when our vital neurotransmitters are replenished, feelings of depression are common in those who are chronically tired. Studies have shown that people getting less than adequate amounts of sleep have a higher incidence of irritability and frustration and a decreased ability to modulate their moods.
Another thing I see in people who do not get enough sleep is a slower rate of healing. These people respond much more slowly to chiropractic care and get easily discouraged by their results. The bottom line is this: you need rest to heal – period. New cells are produced and damaged ones replaced during sleep. Although our body's regenerative processes occur at all times, they accelerate during deep sleep.
People who work out also need sufficient sleep as this is the time muscle tissue repairs. Working out, but not getting enough sleep, prevents muscle growth and can leave you susceptible to breaking down your own muscle tissue. Exercise without sleep defeats the purpose, so, essentially, you may as well just not work out if you're not going to rest.
So, the final question is this: how much sleep is sufficient? The unsatisfying answer – it really depends on the individual. Some people really do need only six hours of sleep, but that's rare. Most people need between eight and nine hours nightly. The good news is that you know when you haven't had enough sleep. Our bodies have an internal mechanism that tells us when we are tired. Most of the disorders I have just mentioned are a part of that mechanism. True, we can sometimes ignore these signals enough to lose touch with them, and I suspect this is exactly what happens with people who chronically under sleep, but for the most part, we know when we're tired. So, don't ignore it – get some sleep! You'll be better able to conquer the world if you do, or at least conquer that project that's due tomorrow morning.
Oh Lord, look at the time; now I really gotta get some sleep….
*Next month's article will be Part Two of the sleep series. We'll discuss mattresses, pillows, and the fallacy of proper sleeping positions.
- March 5, 2007
The Six Keys to Optimal Health by Dr. Nicolas Campos
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