Humans spend a third of their lives sleeping. Sleep is critical to humans as is food, water, and air but it is also one thing we easily neglect.
I know busy professionals who barely manage to get four to five hours of sleep each night and yet manage to be active and productive. Hustle culture has normalised sleeping less and working more. I can imagine someone writing a humble brag post on LinkedIn on productivity and how they manage just fine on four hours of sleep. But is that the best thing to do for your body and mind? Perhaps not.
Let’s take a look at why sleep is essential for the human body and how to improve our sleeping habits.
What Is Sleep?
Sleep is more complex than just closing our eyes and drifting off. The architecture of sleep is divided into two types — REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). In REM sleep, there are rapid brainwaves, like the state of wakefulness. During this period, the brain is said to consolidate past and present information, memories, feelings, and experiences into one large collage like a motion picture or as we know it, dreams. This is why the REM stage is called the dreaming state. The NREM phase is a sensory blackout phase, where the brain transfers data from short-term memory to long-term memory, think of it as a data transfer or backup in your brain.
In what I think is the best and most interesting book on sleep written in recent times, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, scientist and professor of neuroscience Dr Matthew Walker writes, “If you don’t sleep the very first night after learning, you lose the chance to consolidate those memories.” This information is vital for those of us learning something new.
Another fascinating fact about NREM sleep from the book is Dr Walker’s insight into NREM sleep. “What you are actually experiencing during deep NREM sleep is one of the most epic displays of neural collaboration that we know of. Through an astonishing act of self-organisation, many thousands of brain cells have all decided to unite and “sing,” or fire, in time.”
The Importance Of Sleep
As busy professionals with deadlines to meet, zoom meetings across time zones, frequent travel and jet lag, and to top it social life, what came easily to us as kids is something we are struggling with as adults. Decades of research into sleep has shown that sleep is critical for physical, mental and emotional health. Good sleep aids memory, learning and cognitive abilities, creativity and problem-solving, immune function, cellular repair and clean up. Drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Reuters quoted a US study in 2018 as saying, "Drivers who reported having slept for less than four hours had “crash risks” similar to what’s been documented in drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of 0.12 g/dL, Tefft notes in his report. In the U.S., driving with a BAC of 0.08 g/dL or higher is illegal, with lower limits for commercial drivers."
It has been proven that getting moderately reduced sleep for just a week disrupts blood sugar levels profoundly. Lack of adequate quality sleep increases the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer. Shorter sleep on a regular basis is also linked to a shorter lifespan.
Here are 11 tips to improve sleep:
- Have at least 30 minutes of sunlight exposure during the day to regulate your sleep cycle.
- Set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time every day, even on weekends. Having a regular sleep routine helps your body know when to rest and wake up.
- Don't take naps after 3 pm. Late-afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
- Try not to have caffeine and nicotine a few hours before bedtime.
- Finish your exercise routines 3-4 hours before bedtime as it drives up body temperature and metabolic rate making it tough to initiate sleep.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed as it makes you drowsy at first but later disrupt sleep.
- Unwind before bedtime with relaxing activities like reading or music to ease yourself into sleep mode.
- A warm bath before sleep can help you relax and prepare your body for a restful night.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool and gadget free. Black-out curtains are your best friend.
- Some medications can interfere with your sleep patterns. Consult your doctor if you think any of your medications are responsible for a lack of quality sleep.
- Don't lie in bed awake as it makes your brain associate your bed with wakefulness instead of sleep.
Sleep And Work Culture
As a manager or a CEO, you should prioritise your own sleep and well-being and lead by example. Do not schedule meetings after work hours or provide unrealistic deadlines. Avoid glorifying late nights and all-nighters and foster a work environment that values rest. This impacts the company’s culture positively. Optimise the lighting at the workplace in sync with the body clock to promote better quality sleep at night. Having a designated area where employees can take power naps during breaks helps boost alertness and creativity, leading to a more productive workforce.
Sleep is the easiest way we can press the reset button for our brain and good health and it is high time we gave it the importance it deserves.
Highly recommended reading: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker