Do you remember when you learned that bears (and other animals) actually hibernate for the entire winter- how amazing it was to realize that their bodies undergo metabolic changes that allow them to basically shut down for months at a time?
Have you ever thought about the fact that in a very real sense, we hibernate, too? That’s what we’re doing when we sleep. We may not hibernate for months on end, but every night we crawl into our nice, warm caves and shut everything down for seven or eight hours. (And, if the alarm clock ends our hibernation prematurely, we’re likely to be as grouchy as bears!)
Of all the things we do to stay healthy and fit, sleeping may be the most important and least appreciated. It’s hard to overstate just how important quality sleep is, and how detrimental the effects of unhealthy sleeping habits can be.
For instance, did you know that sleep is like a carwash and detailing for the brain? While you stack Z’s, the brain’s cleaning system (the glymphatic system) goes into overdrive, eliminating metabolic waste and clearing away toxins that can cause Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders. Amazingly, your brain cells actually shrink while you sleep which allows waste to be removed more effectively.
Does your memory sometimes let you down? If so, it might be that you’re not getting enough sleep. The ability to strengthen and maintain long-term memories- known as memory consolidation-also depends on sufficient sleep.
On top of all that, when you don’t get enough sleep, you tend to burn more carbohydrate and protein and less fat. In other words, you’re more likely to gain fat and lose muscle!
Starting to get the picture?
Many of us seem to think we can cheat sleep. We know the experts say we’re supposed to get at least seven or eight hours a night, but life is challenging and filled with distractions. So, we settle for five or six hours a night, drink gallons of coffee, and tell ourselves we’re operating at peak performance levels- we essentially convince ourselves that we’re being more productive because we’re putting in longer hours. We may even think our ongoing sleep deprivation is kind of heroic…
The problem is, we can’t fool our bodies and our brains. In fact, the difference between eight hours of sleep a night and six hours is not only highly significant, but the negative effect of a daily two-hour shortfall also accumulates over time. In one study, researchers assigned subjects to groups that got either four, six, or eight hours of sleep per night for 14 days.
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When they tested the subjects by having them press the spacebar on a keyboard at the sight of random prompts on a computer screen, the eight-hour group had virtually no attention lapses and showed no significant cognitive decline over the course of the study. Predictably, however, the four-hour group performed very poorly and got worse with each passing day.
Perhaps less predictably, the six-hour group also fared extremely poorly and worsened significantly as the study progressed. By the end, their decline had reached the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk. That’s right. Folks on the road who are consistently sleep deprived, even to a relatively small degree, may be as dangerous as the ones who stopped off at the bar for a few drinks after work.
Scientists have clearly demonstrated that sleep is a crucial element when it comes to both your mental and physical strength. And, it’s hard to catch up when you fall behind. Getting extra sleep on weekends to make up for a sleep-deprived week can help eliminate daytime sleepiness, but cognitive performance still suffers under such circumstances.
To get the most out of yourself and your life, try to sleep well and sleep fully every night. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do.