head on table in workday, wish she was sleeping

Sleep: The Ultimate Performance-Enhancing Drug

While we often think of sleep as a period of inactivity, it is nevertheless a very productive use of time. A kind of physiological piggy bank, sleep allows us to rejuvenate, allowing us to sustain happiness and productivity during our working hours. If you want to be at the top of your game, you need to enjoy great sleep, night after night.


How much sleep do we really need?

Too many professionals are in a constant state of feeling tired or perhaps even wired. Sadly, these people have come to accept a substandard level of wellness and actually rationalize the behaviours that cause their discomfort. Frankly, we all deserve better.

It’s important to clearly understand what constitutes great sleep. Research suggests that we require 7.5 hours of undisrupted sleep for good health and that we should achieve this between the hours of 10pm and 6am. In the words of Arianna Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, “if you are having a lot of trouble sleeping, your body may be trying to tell you something about the way you are conducting your life.” Understanding the incredible restorative and health-enhancing processes that take place while we sleep can help us make conscious decisions to prioritize sleep in our busy lives.


What happens when we sleep?

Typically, we cycle between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. The cycles vary but are roughly 90 minutes each. Five of these cycles will give us 7.5 hours of undisrupted sleep. The NREM part of the cycle is also referred to as deep sleep, while the REM part is known as light sleep. Each cycle sequentially adds to the restorative efforts of previous cycles, which is why it’s better to achieve five cycles per night than three.

According to Dr. Karen MacNeill, Registered Psychologist at Copeman Healthcare, sleep is essential for our physical, emotional and mental health. It enhances our immune system, helps our muscles and bones heal from daily wear and tear, purges metabolic waste from our brains and even recalibrates our emotional navigational system.

For example, during the REM part of the cycle, our brains work on our emotional stability. If we don’t get enough REM sleep, our emotional navigation system starts to falter and our sense of direction and sensibility decreases. This is why with too little sleep we can feel highly irritable or make irrational decisions.

Studies have shown that effective sleep can improve your memory and decrease your risk of illness. During the NREM part of the cycle our hippocampus is activated which is responsible for short-term memory which can be thought of as your brain’s USB key. The inputs of the day go through a relevancy filter and are consolidated in our neocortex which is responsible for long-term memory which is like your hard drive. “If we don’t get enough NREM sleep, the USB key doesn’t get emptied out,” explains MacNeill. “As a result, our capacity to absorb new information the next day is impaired.” Additionally, we can’t recall information from the past as readily because it is not in the hard drive for retrieval. Over time, the net effect is clouded thinking and a reduced memory. Research also suggests that during NREM sleep our cerebral cleanser revs up and our glymphatic system purges our brains of the metabolic waste generated during the day. One of the waste products is beta-amyloid, which is associated with dementia, highlighting the significant cognitive benefits of sleep.

If you don’t have any problem getting 7.5 hours of shuteye at least five nights a week, then that’s fabulous. However, if you struggle with suboptimal or fragmented sleep, then you may want to consider making some simple lifestyle changes to improve your quality of sleep.

You should first ensure there is no medical basis to your poor sleep and consult with your health practitioner if you have any concerns.


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