Sleep. As our lives become busier and time more valuable, many of us forfeit sleep in favour of watching one more episode of our favourite show or completing another blog post. The 8-hour workday, a concept started during the Industrial Revolution, is no longer the norm with the average American working 8.8 hours (stats from a great article “The 8-hour Workday Doesn’t Really Work“). I average 4-5 hours a night, far less than the recommended 7-8 hours, and have since my undergrad years. Many of my colleagues are shocked that I’m able to function. I would be too, except that both my parents are also a blend of night owl and early bird, averaging around the same amount of sleep as me. That being said, could we be more productive and efficient with an extra couple hours of sleep each night? According to the research, potentially. In this article I discuss sleep, what it is and why it’s important, as well as the difference between early birds and night owls.
What is sleep and why do we need it?
By definition, sleep is a condition of body and mind such as that which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended. Looking a bit closer, we find our sleep pattern is made up of 4 non-REM and 1 REM stage.
REM is Rapid-Eye Movement and is the stage in which we dream. To feel fully rested, we need to achieve both deep sleep, or stage 4, as well as REM. You can learn more about the stages of sleep in this article from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. While the what and how is easy, the why is a bit trickier.
Why Do We Sleep?
From an evolutionary standpoint, sleep leaves us vulnerable to attack yet without it we experience mental and physical degradation. Scientists have not yet pinpointed exactly why we sleep, but here are some theories:
- Sleep seems to be a crucial part of forming memories and learning. Research suggests that this occurs during REM sleep, at the same times as we dream. In fact, even a short nap boosts our memory. A recent study suggests that sleeping also helps us forget unfavourable events and balances our emotions and social interactions (source).
- A study done this year found that mouse brain cells shrunk while the mouse slept, increasing the space around them by up to 60%. This allows a greater flow of cerebral spinal fluid to flow through the brain, washing out molecular waste and toxic proteins. The results are being met with some resistance, but the authors feel sure they have identified why we sleep.
- Our bodies switch from catabolic to anabolic processes, switching our bodies production from energy to other needed molecules to help us heal (source). Deep sleep has also been found to correspond with an increase in growth hormone, especially in children and teens (source).
We clearly need sleep to stay healthy, but how much do we need and what happens if we don’t get it?
How Long, Early to Bed, Up Late, Not Enough: Effects of These Factors on Sleep
How much sleep do we need? Depends on how old you are and who you are. Extensive research done by the National Sleep Foundation shows that adults should sleep between 7-9 hours a night. That being said, they also state that the ideal amount varies based on who you are and having too little or too much can be detrimental to your health.
Is it better to be an early bird or a night owl? Researchers from Aachen University have found that 10% of people are early birds while 20% are night owls. They also say night owls are less awake during the day, have decreased focus, and consume more alcohol and tobacco. Perhaps more shocking, night owls show a degradation of their brain’s white matter is similar to those suffering from depression. Luckily, they also say that night owls can counter these effects by ensuring they get plenty of sunshine and minimizing artificial light, forcing their bodies back into a regular cycle. As stated in a Forbes article, early risers have been found to achieve better grades, are more proactive, have better planning abilities, and are more optimistic, not to mention having more time to do things like exercise and spend time with family. In other words, it’s better to get to be at a decent hour and wake up early than staying up late.
What happens if we don’t get enough? Discovery provides a great summary, with symptoms including:
- tissue damaging inflammation
- increase of the hormone ghrelin and decrease of the hormone leptin, leading to weight gain
- decrease in our immune system efficiency, making us more susceptible to illness
- disruptive behaviours
- increased likelihood of ADHD and depression
- decrease in emotional stability, making it difficult to stay objective and increasing our stress levels
- less than six hours of sleep can affect hand-eye coordination and lead drivers to doze off on the road
- increase the chances of heart attacks and potentially fatal cardiovascular disorders
To be an effective leader, we need to be able to be alert, objective, and process information to learn new tasks. Given the above, effective leaders need to be early risers who get at least 6 hours of sleep on a regular basis. Looks like I’ll be heading to bed earlier!