Are you cultivating your superpower?

It’s as important to your health and well-being as diet and exercise

In our productivity-oriented society, we spend most of our time focused on activity. What am I accomplishing? What am I getting done?

But there is at least one day of the year when we can focus on productivity’s opposite: sleep. And it’s absolutely essential that we do. Although often ignored and under-rated, sleep is your body’s superpower. It’s as important to health and well-being as diet and exercise. In fact, a person can survive longer without food than they can without sleep. That’s because sleep—and a lot of it—is when your body performs its maintenance and repair functions. And the longer we live, and the more stress we experience (which, in our culture, is 24/7), the more maintenance and repair we need.

As I describe in my book, Conquering Cultural Stress, and summarize in this blog post, “Just about every system in the body is affected by the quality and amount of sleep you get at night. Sleep can dictate how much you eat, whether or not you can fight off infections, and how well you can cope with stress. The combined offenders of stress and sleep deprivation have been proven to steal precious water away from cells. This helps explain why ‘looking tired’ typically means you’re looking older and more dried out. Your skin’s barrier function has been compromised and you’re losing more water not only from your skin cells but from every cell in your body.

“Personal experience alone tells you what sleeplessness can do: make you look haggard and feel moody, depressed, and downright negative about everything in life. It can also encourage you to overeat, drink too much caffeine, scream at your spouse and kids, and dodge workouts and sex because you’re just too tired.”

Just 36 hours of sleep deprivation will have far more severe health consequences than 36 hours without food. Sleeplessness will result in:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Metabolic changes
  • Deficits in eye-hand coordination
  • Tremors and muscle spasms
  • Decreased motivation
  • Increased anxiety
  • Poor decision-making
  • Inflexible reasoning
  • Decreased attention
  • Impaired speech

Although the effects of short-term sleep deprivation can be overcome with a return to several nights of quality sleep, chronic sleep deprivation leads to:

All of which can put you at increased risk for:

For all of these reasons, the World Sleep Society has declared the Friday preceding the Spring Equinox as World Sleep Day as a way to raise awareness about the importance of sleep and the prevalence of common sleep-related issues.

Did you know that, according to FactRetriever:

  • Humans spend about one-third of their life (25 years) sleeping?
  • Sleep is a universal characteristic of complex living organisms, observed in insects, mollusks, fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals?
  • Sleep disorders affect more than 50% of people?
  • There are at least 84 identified sleep/wake disorders? (Despite the wide variety, most can be characterized by one or more of the following four signs:
    • Trouble falling or remaining asleep
    • Difficulty staying awake during the day
    • Sleep-wake cycle imbalances that interfere with a healthy sleep schedule
    • Unusual behaviors during sleep)
  • Sleep-related errors and accidents cost U.S. businesses an estimated $56 billion/year, cause nearly 25,000 deaths, and result in 2.5 million disabling injuries?
  • Sleep deprivation is believed to be the single most effective form of torture?
  • Over 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder? Including more than two million children?
  • 60% of the 70 million have a chronic disorder?
  • Your core body temperature drops to facilitate the onset of sleep? And that artificial heat sources, such as electric blankets, can negatively affect your quality of sleep?
  • Darkness promotes the production of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone?
  • The brain uses sleep to “consolidate” memories and skills by performing reorganizing and restructuring activities?
  • Being tired accounts for the highest number of fatal single-car crashes—even more than alcohol?
  • If you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you likely have not had enough sleep?
  • If you fall asleep in fewer than five minutes after lying down, you likely are suffering from severe sleep deprivation?
  • A snoring partner wakes a non-snoring partner an average of 20 times per night, resulting in an average sleep loss of one hour per night?
  • Sleeplessness reduces production of the growth hormone somatotropin, which is responsible for repairing damaged cells and maintaining skin elasticity?
  • Regularly interrupted sleep can lead to a buildup of amyloid-beta, a type of protein that’s linked to Alzheimer’s disease? (In one study, individuals with the most fragmented sleep were 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s over a 6-year follow-up than those with the least fragmented sleep.)

How much sleep do you need?

Sleep needs vary throughout life. Babies sleep up to 17 hours in a 24-hour day because they are growing. Adults typically need 7-9 hours, although that can vary depending upon other stressors, such as overall health and the quality of the sleep.

Scientists who study sleep now identify four distinct stages. The first three are called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also known as quiet sleep. The fourth is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as active sleep. As outlined in VeryWell Health:

In Stage 1, you transition from wakefulness to sleep. In Stage 2 you enter light sleep. By Stage 3 you are in a deep sleep. Stage 4 REM, known as paradoxical sleep, is when the body is immobilized and dreams occur.

Each sleep stage has a specialized role in maintaining your brain’s overall cognitive performance. Stages 3 and 4 are also associated with physical repairs and maintenance that keep you healthy and ready for the day ahead. For example, during Stages 3 and 4, skin renewal, repair and restoration take place and the skin’s metabolic rate increases, speeding cellular turnover and new cell production.

The entire sleep cycle repeats itself several times a night, with every successive REM stage increasing in duration and depth.

Stage 1 Sleep

This stage, which lasts about 5-10 minutes, is a transition period between wakefulness and sleep when:

  • Your brain activity slows
  • Heartbeat, eye movements, and breathing slow with it
  • Your body relaxes and your muscles may twitch

If you awaken someone during this stage, they might report that they were not really asleep.

During stage 1 sleep:1

  • Your brain slows down
  • Your heartbeat, your eye movements, and your breathing slow with it
  • Your body relaxes, and your muscles may twitch

During this transition period, you may also experience strange and vivid sensations, known as “hypnagogic hallucinations,” the most common of which are the sense of falling or of hearing someone call your name. Another common experience is the “myoclonic jerk,” which occurs when you are startled suddenly for no apparent reason.

Stage 2 Sleep

This stage lasts about 20 minutes per cycle, during which:

  • Your awareness of your surroundings fades away
  • Your body temperature drops
  • Your eye movements stop
  • Your breathing and heart rate become more regular

During this stage the brain also begins generating bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity, known as “sleep spindles,” when your brain gathers, processes, and filters new memories you acquired the previous day.

While this is occurring, your body slows further in preparation for Stages 3 and 4 sleep (REM sleep), which are the deep sleep stages when the brain and body repair, restore, and reset for the coming day.

Stage 3 Sleep

During this stage of sleep, the brain begins producing the deep, slow brain waves known as delta waves, which is why this stage is also referred to as delta sleep. During this stage, sleep is so deep that noises or activity in the environment may fail to wake the sleeping person. This is also the sleep that enables you to feel refreshed in the morning.

During Stage 3 sleep:

  • Your muscles completely relax
  • Your blood pressure drops, and breathing slows
  • You progress into your deepest sleep
  • Your body starts its physical repairs
  • Your brain consolidates memories, knowledge, and experiences acquired during the day

Stage 4 Sleep (REM)

Stage 4 Sleep, also known as REM (for rapid eye movement) sleep, your body is immobilized, while your brain activity most closely resembles its activity during waking hours. This period of sleep begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep, during which:

  • Your brain lights up with activity
  • Your body is relaxed and immobilized
  • Your breathing is faster and irregular
  • Your eyes move rapidly
  • You dream
  • You further consolidate memories, particularly emotions and emotional memories
  • Information is filed for future recall—making this an important sleep stage for learning
  • Your cells continue their maintenance, repair, and restoration work, including the release of hormones that promote bone and muscle growth, repair free radical damage, and strengthen the immune system.

As noted, the body repeats this cycle several times throughout the night, as follows:

Once REM sleep is over, the body usually returns to NREM stage 2 before beginning the cycle all over again. Time spent in each stage changes throughout the night as the cycle repeats (about four to five times total), with REM (Stage 4) increasing with each iteration until morning.

What happens when sleep is interrupted?

If the sleep cycle process is interrupted by waking up in the middle of the night, the process starts over again. However, when you experience interrupted sleep, you miss out on REM most of all. Without sufficient REM, your cognitive performance and emotional wellbeing suffer.

Regularly interrupted sleep is also associated with shorter overall sleep times. People who have their sleep interrupted don’t always receive adequate sleep, whereas those who enjoy uninterrupted sleep are more likely to get their recommended seven to nine hours.

How to get a good night’s sleep

The most important recommendation for getting a good night’s sleep is to give it the same priority as you give your waking goals. After all, investing in a good night’s sleep is the foundation for productivity in the morning and long-term health overall.

Other recommendations include:

  • Maintaining the same bedtime and wake time every day, even on weekends. (After a while, you’ll find that your body does this naturally, if you are not sick or sleep-deprived.)
  • Using the bed and bedroom only for sex and sleep. (Move your home office to another room of the house.)
  • Keeping the bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. (65˚ is the optimal temperature, although individual preferences vary.)
  • Refraining from watching television or using other electronics before bed.
  • Turning off your phone or keeping it in another room. (The blue light of a notification may be particularly disruptive of sleep.)
  • Developing a regular bedtime routine, such as taking a warm bath, dimming the lights, reading a book, and/or turning on a white noise machine—all of which signal your body that it’s time to go to sleep.
  • Avoiding eating large meals close to bedtime.
  • Avoiding caffeinealcohol, or nicotine near bedtime.
  • Avoiding news, controversy, or other upsets as bedtime approaches. (No more 11 o’clock news!)
  • Writing down your “to-do” list or other “don’t forget” items so that your brain can let go of them.
  • Getting vigorous exercise during the day. (Physical exertion often promotes a good night’s sleep.)
  • Closing your eyes, slowing your breath, and repeating a soothing phrase, such as “All is well” before drifting off.
  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness.
  • Not checking the clock to see how long it is taking to fall asleep.
  • Getting out of bed if falling asleep is taking too long or causing anxiety.

What about the “second sleep”?

In recent years, some researchers have proposed that it may be normal for humans to sleep in two shifts during the night—and that in pre-industrial Europe, as well as in various tribal societies, bi-modal, or bi-phasic, sleeping was the norm. People would go to bed as darkness fell, awaken a few hours later for one to two hours, and then enjoy a second sleep until dawn. During the midnight waking period, people might relax, ponder their dreams, have sex, gather in common areas to visit, or engage in restful activities such as reading, sewing, or knitting. While this might not work for most people, if you are one of those people for whom a bi-phasic schedule comes more naturally, it may be better to accept this pattern than to worry about maintaining an uninterrupted sleep schedule for the entire night.

Whatever method you adopt, the important thing is to prioritize sleep: it’s your superpower!

BUY THE BOOK ON AMAZON: In Conquering Cultural Stress, Dr. Murad shows you how to:

  • Say goodbye to emotional, stress-based overeating to shed pounds
  • Improve your mood and productivity
  • Lower your Living Age by as much as 10 years
  • Make small lifestyle changes that have a huge impact on aging and well-being
  • Prepare easy, delicious, stress-reducing meals

And best of all, by following his simple, practical, three-step plan, you can actually build youth back into your cells and function optimally—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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