March 18, 2022 marks this year’s World Sleep Day, an annual awareness event supported by the World Sleep Society. But why do we need such an event for sleep? After all, we all sleep literally every day, so you’d think we’re pretty aware about it, no?
Why do we need more awareness?
While it’s true that we all need to regularly engage in some shuteye, getting a proper amount of quality sleep is actually quite challenging in today’s society. In fact, hustle culture, i.e. a lifestyle where careers are the main priority and everything else gets put on the back burner, seems to have declared sleep public enemy number one. So World Sleep Day tries to bring our awareness back to our sleep habits and to why sleep is so important.
What defines quality sleep?
The first factor is how much sleep we’re actually getting. The amount of necessary sleep per night actually varies a bit depending on how lucky you were in the gene lottery, but scientists and healthcare professionals agree that at least 7-9 hours is a reasonable amount. How well are we doing with that? Well, according to the American Sleep Association, ~35% of all adults in the United States alone reported sleeping less than 7 hours per night (this number seems to have risen to >50% during the Covid-19 pandemic).
And as if getting an appropriate amount of sleep isn’t hard enough, you also need to pay attention to the quality of that sleep. In other words, even if you somehow manage to string together 10 hours of sleep every day, it’s not going to help much if you wake up feeling you just crawled out of a grave. But what determines whether sleep is restorative or not?
In addition to duration, healthy sleep should occur without interruptions. So if in those 10 hours you wake up every second one, either because your phone keeps buzzing, or you’re having stress-induced nightmares, or loud car alarms go off at random moments, it’s probably not going to leave you very refreshed.
Sleep continuity ties into another factor as well, and that is the depth of your sleep. Based on what processes occur in your brain during sleep and what patterns of activity the brain produces, sleep in humans can be divided into five stages: REM (commonly known as the dreaming stage, with patterns of activity closely resembling those of the awake state), and non-REM stages 1 to 4 (from lightest to deepest, characterized by increasingly slower activity). Non-REM stages 3 and 4, the deepest ones, are also known as slow wave sleep (SWS). SWS is particularly important for memory consolidation and for restorative sleep. However, if you awaken frequently during the night, your brain might not have time to enter SWS.
Unfortunately, other factors can also affect the amount of SWS you get during the night. For example, caffeine and alcohol, especially if consumed close to bedtime, lead to a reduction of SWS. That’s part of the reason why you feel so groggy after chugging a couple of beers in the evening.
What happens if we lack quality sleep?
Now that we know what defines adequate sleep, let’s see what happens when we don’t manage to get that. For one, you’ll be tired (I know, what a shocker!). But tiredness isn’t just unpleasant. As we’ve all noticed by now, tiredness makes it much harder for us to focus. So our attention decreases, our cognitive capacities are impaired, it takes longer to process information, we also tend to become more impulsive and irritable. This, in turn, leads to us making more errors, which, depending on the task, could have dire consequences.
And there’s more. On the long term, sleep deprivation has a bunch of negative consequences. These include: increased risk of cardiovascular disease, premature aging, obesity, impaired immune system functioning, increased inflammation, disruption of the blood-brain barrier, and increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases, among others.
Also, as a side note, scientists have observed that sleep patterns are commonly disturbed across many (if not all) neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, ADHD, Parkinson’s disease etc. It’s not exactly clear why, or what the direction of causality is in this case, but some scientists believe that there is a sort of feedback interaction between sleep abnormalities and the severity of disease. They hypothesize that these sleep abnormalities further aggravate the disorders, which in turn accentuate the abnormalities and so on and so forth.
How to actually get quality sleep?
By now it’s clear that not getting proper sleep is one of the worst things you can do against your health. Still, it’s not like you can say “from tonight, I’ll get adequate sleep every night”. Sleep hygiene is something which needs to actively developed and maintained. So if you’re not sure where to start from, we’ve got a couple of tips for you.
- Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern, i.e. go to bed and wake up at relatively the same time every day, even on the weekends, even during your holidays. Yes, realistically speaking, this won’t work every single day for the rest of your life. But, even if, for example, you stay out late one night, try not to sleep in until late afternoon the next day. It might seem difficult, but your brain will appreciate the routine.
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible and as free of distractions as possible. Use thick, dark curtains to block out the light and leave your phone at least on silent, if not outside the bedroom.
- Don’t consume caffeine in the second part of the day or alcohol before bed.
- Try to work out a bit during the day. It doesn’t have to be one hour of weightlifting at the gym. Even a short walk around the block will help.
- And finally, probably the trickiest one: actively try to reduce your stress levels. Yes, we’ve had a look at the world around us lately and no, we don’t really know how to reduce stress now. But if you find out, let us know as well.
Finally, we feel that we need to mention that, while it would be ideal to do all the things above all the time, we’re also aware that’s not exactly realistic. However, even if you manage to do only one or two of them some of the time, it’s still better than nothing. So don’t get discouraged and don’t think that if you didn’t get to do one item, it’s all pointless and you should give up.
What did you think about this post? Would you like to learn more about sleep and the brain? Let us know in the comments below.
You can also check out more of our posts below:
Hurtado-Alvarado, G., Domínguez-Salazar, E., Pavon, L., Velazquez-Moctezuma, J., & Gomez-Gonzalez, B. (2016). Blood-brain barrier disruption induced by chronic sleep loss: low-grade inflammation may be the link. Journal of Immunology Research, 2016.
Morris, G., Stubbs, B., Köhler, C. A., Walder, K., Slyepchenko, A., Berk, M., & Carvalho, A. F. (2018). The putative role of oxidative stress and inflammation in the pathophysiology of sleep dysfunction across neuropsychiatric disorders: focus on chronic fatigue syndrome, bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis. Sleep medicine reviews, 41, 255-265.
Wang, C., & Holtzman, D. M. (2020). Bidirectional relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease: role of amyloid, tau, and other factors. Neuropsychopharmacology, 45(1), 104-120.
Waters, F., Chiu, V., Atkinson, A., & Blom, J. D. (2018). Severe sleep deprivation causes hallucinations and a gradual progression toward psychosis with increasing time awake. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 303.
World Sleep Day Q&A: https://worldsleepday.org/ask-the-sleep-experts