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“O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature’s soft nurse” – William Shakespeare

We all know how glorious it feels to be well rested. Waking up after a solid, unbroken night’s sleep, feeling invigorated, ready for the day, and prepared to face the world as the best version of ourselves.

We also all probably know how it feels when you have not had a good night’s sleep, or several in a row!

In the 1950’s most people got about eight hours of sleep a night, yet since 1980, our view of sleep has changed. Fast forward to 1980 when then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, claimed “sleep is for wimps!”, and the start of the 20th century when inventor extraordinaire Thomas Edison stated “sleep is a criminal waste of time and heritage from our cave days!” This was around the time he invented the light bulb to allow us to more easily work through the night!

Now we sleep for around six hours during the working week. According to the 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults, nearly a quarter of adults reported their typical routine did not allow them to get enough sleep, with this figure rising to around 30% in the prime working ages of 18-44 years. Teenagers (who have a biological predisposition to go to bed late and get up late) ideally need about nine hours for full brain performance yet many of them, on a school night, only get five hours a night.

Lack of sleep can lead to some tough mornings, and can have serious consequences for us, impacting how we feel, how we look, our productivity, our creativity and how we react to people around us.

If we want to do one thing to optimise our productivity, health and wellbeing, getting more sleep is an essential strategy.

Sleep is a need on par with food, and shelter and water with 36% of our life spent asleep. In fact, circadian Neuroscientist Russell Foster suggest that should you and your partner reach your 60th anniversary, 21.5 of those years would have been spent asleep, so you really only have 38.5 years of being awake together to celebrate! Yet the quality of the 21.5 years asleep will to some extent dictate the quality of the years awake with your partner.

Evolution hones and fine tunes our biology to maximise efficiency, therefore sleep is a massive part of our overall biology that we need to celebrate. All of the scientific research points to the importance of rest in our increasingly fast-paced lives.

So what makes catching enough zzzzz’s so important?

The answer is: the impact on our brain and body. Neuroscience is showing us that parts of our brain are highly active when asleep, in some cases moreso than when awake!

Here are some wondrous powers of sleep that research has revealed:

1) Sleep cleans your brain

Evidence suggests that as your brain is processing during the day, your neurons produce toxic by-products (similar to what your muscles do when you work out). The space between the neurons focuses on removing this waste, and much of this happens while you are asleep. This space opens up, allowing the fluids to flow through your brain more freely; essentially flushing and cleaning your brain of toxins while you sleep, to prepare you for the day ahead.

2) Sleep restores your brain and body

During the day, our bodies are mainly occupied with the business of living, spending energy on motor activity and cognitive functions. When we fall asleep, our bodies shift into maintenance mode and devote themselves to storing energy, fixing or replacing damaged cells, and growing. During the night, all the ‘fuel’ we use during the day is restored, replaced and rebuilt.

The part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the centre for executive functioning. This includes all higher order cognitive processes such as thinking, strategising, decision making, self-regulation, paying attention and creativity. Whilst neuroscientists have shown that other areas of the brain can cope fairly well with too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. The prefrontal cortex requires a lot of ‘fuel’ to function at its best, and this fuel (dopamine) is produced while you sleep.

The sleeping brain is intensely active and a selection of genes have actually been shown to turn on only during sleep, associated with restoration and metabolic pathways. Sleeping more than five hours a night prevents the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin, therefore reducing your appetite for carbohydrates, particularly sugars. Getting enough sleep also ensures your immune system has the fuel it needs to keep you fighting fit!

3) Sleep improves your memory and creativity

Sleep expert Jessica Payne’s research shows that during sleep, the brain processes the day’s experiences, reinforcing and consolidating memory. Hundreds of ‘jigsaw pieces’ of information flow into our brains during the day – this ‘encoding’ of new information uses one set of brain regions. Yet consolidating them, i.e. adding them to the rest of the puzzle, requires different regions. It is very difficult for our brains to encode new information and consolidate it at the same time. At night, you have the time to associate those new pieces to what has been experienced previously, and anticipate what you might experience in the future. This restructuring and transformation of information to come up with insights, see more distant connections and commit things to long term memory is a lot easier for our brain to do when we are asleep. It has been estimated that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is enhanced threefold by a night of good sleep. Many people describe waking up in the middle of the night with a great idea, and Paul McCartney claims to have come up with the tune for ‘Yesterday’ in his sleep!

Jessica Payne looks into ‘sleep proxies’ which are activities that are not the same as sleeping, yet take your brain ‘offline’ to allow for neurochemical changes in ways that make you more creative and consolidates memories, in a way that active wakefulness can’t. Examples of sleep proxies are relaxation exercise, stretching and yoga or even a reflective walk.

Payne’s latest studies suggests that perhaps even brief daytime power naps (of up to 20 minutes) during the day can in some cases give you as much ‘bang for your buck’ (in terms of cognitive performance) as a full night’s sleep, and in some cases, can give you even more! Sleeping for 20 minutes or less keeps you in a stage of sleep which is beneficial for cognition and from which you can be easily awakened. Napping for 90 minutes or so will allow your brain to complete an entire sleep cycle. Yet between 20 and 90 minutes you run the risk of waking up in the middle of deep sleep, feeling groggy and unrefreshed. Interestingly, Payne has found that even those of us who get enough sleep at night seem to benefit from the brief daytime powernap.

In a nutshell…

…If you have good sleep, it increases your concentration, attention, efficient learning, memory, decision-making, creativity, social skills, and health. It is amazing that actively doing so little can do so much for our wellbeing!

So how can get more, better quality sleep?

Treat yourself as a scientific experiment and see what works for you. Build healthy habits around relaxation – explore a routine that helps lead you into sleep.

Why not try:

  • Exercising during the day – Sleep specialist Carmel Harrington states that people who exercise regularly report the best sleep (yet she also suggests exercising too close to bedtime simply wakes the body up and often causes issues with getting to sleep. She therefore recommends not exercising within 3 hours of bedtime and preferably before 6.30 pm)
  • A daytime nap of either 20 or 90 minutes on a regular basis
  • Going to bed earlier
  • Relaxation exercises – stretching or yoga before bed
  • Spending a week without an alarm, going to bed at the same time and see what happens
  • Focusing on three things you are grateful for before sleeping, so you are thinking about positive things
  • Having a hot shower or bath before bed so you are warm and snuggly (which supports the thermoregulation required to fall asleep)
  • Practicing some mindfulness – Sue Langley loves Buddhify’s Fade mindfulness to send her off to sleep

Carmel Harrington, from Sydney, who has a PhD in Sleep Medicine, suggests that if you are in doubt about whether your activities during the wakeful hours are disturbing your sleep, try keeping a sleep diary for two weeks. 

Basically, listen to your body and wind down before you hit the hay. On average, we need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Yet some people need more, and equally, some people need less. Try to cultivate self-awareness to understand just how much sleep your body needs.

Science is showing us just how important sleep is, and how prioritising it will benefit us and those around us.  Sleep is not an indulgence. It is key to turning up more frequently as the best version of yourself.

If you would like to learn more ways to boost your happiness and wellbeing, download your free eBook on ’10 Brain Friendly Habits’.