Confession time: I’m a huge fan of the Beastie Boys. For those of you not up to speed with your 80s New York hip hop, I’m talking Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock. Three men who taught me a lot about life; you do indeed have to fight for your right to party; you should ch-check it out. But one thing that I simply can’t get on board with is the rash advice given in their 1986 song No Sleep Till Brooklyn. If I could get in there and make a few sensible revisions, it would be re-released as Substantial Sleep Till (and after) Brooklyn. The kids will be lapping that mix of prudent health advice and parody heavy metal.
Obviously, I jest. But there is this recurring trope that sleep is for the weak, and that burning the candle at both ends means that you are living life to its fullest. In fact, a good sleep life is the cornerstone to a life well lived. And given that we spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, we should know what we are getting ourselves into.
Strangely enough, there are still massive unknowns in our current knowledge about why humans need to sleep. Our best guess at this point is that there are a number of biological factors.
It helps us to conserve our energy
Being awake takes a lot of fuel. Simply standing up burns a whole lot of kilojoules (hence the recent flocking to standing desks at work). But when we sleep, we can save about 35% of our energy. Imagine having to eat a third again on top of your current diet. It would be costly, take a long time, and have a massive toll on our environment. We already deal with starvation around the world. If people started consuming an extra third, it would cause millions of people to die.
It allows our bodies to restore more effectively.
Have you ever tried to renovate a room or building without ever moving out? It becomes so much slower and more difficult while the room is still a functional space. But move out temporarily? Everything gets much quicker. The same process is true of you. Your body can divert all of its time and energy into repairing muscles, releasing hormones, and growing tissues. It doesn’t need to split its energy into your balance or cognition. If you’re struggling to get the recommended amount, taking something like restavit tablets will go a long way.
It is crucial for brain function
This is similar to how your body recovers. When you sleep, your brain begins emptying the metaphorical bins from your central nervous system. By removing these toxins, you wake up feeling fresh alert and ready for the next day. Sleep also allows you to improve your learning, problem solving skills, creativity, and focus. It also plays a crucial role in the formation of memory. If your brain is a computer, your short term memory are the files you’ve got open because you are working on them. You can only have so many open at once before you get overwhelmed, but by keeping them here in this short term memory, you are able to access them more regularly. But they don’t last here. They need to be saved to the hard drive (the long term memory). Sleeping gives your brain the chance to save these memories so they don’t vanish the next day (see the kinda tacky 50 First Dates for further reference). Restavit tablets are good, but I don’t think they are going to fix a brain injury - or a terrible film for that matter.
Sleep improves your emotional wellbeing
You all know this to be true. How often have you gone to sleep agonising over something, only to wake up the next day only to discover that it doesn’t bother you so much anymore? When you are asleep, your brain starts firing in all of those places that regulate emotion. For example; there is a part of your brain called the amygdala that controls your fear response. Sleep allows the brain to respond in more creative ways, whereas if you are sleep deprived, your amygdala is more likely to overreact. When we fail to give our brains a rest, we are fuelling the fires of anxiety and depression, which can then disrupt your sleep even further. It’s a dangerous spiral.
It improve your cardiovascular health
This is one of those fun areas where the causes are not yet established, but the correlation is clear. A lack of sleep is usually associated with high blood pressure, increased inflammation, weight gain and insulin resistance. All of these severely impact your quality of life and life expectancy
It helps you maintain a good weight.
Have you ever noticed that you are less hungry after 8 hours of sleep than 8 hours of wakefulness? When you are asleep, you are using fewer kilojoules so you don’t need to eat as much. But sleep also suppresses the hunger hormone ghrelin which drives up your appetite, while releasing leptin, the thing that tells your brain you are full. This happens in reverse when you are awake. Poor weight management leads to obesity and diabetes. So really, if you are serious about losing weight, the first thing you should do? Go back to bed. You’re welcome.
It supports immunity.
We actually become more susceptible to bacteria and viruses when we are not getting enough sleep. Anyone who has ever had young children knows what I am talking about here. When you sleep, your body produces a protein called cytokines that fight infection and inflammation. If you want to cut down the duration or frequency of those colds, you need to spend more time in the land of nod. Again, restavit tablets can help you make up that deficit.
No Sleep Till Brooklyn might have sounded cool when I was a younger man. But burning the candle at both ends is part of the reason rockstars tend to age so horrifically. Paul McCartney headlining Glastonury aged 80 does make a pretty good case for veganism however…
All the best,