Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why Sleep Matters

As a student at Duke University, our unofficial motto was "Work Hard. Play Hard."

There was a prevailing mythical notion that you could have it all--the high GPA that comes with talent--and numerous hours of study, yet not have to sacrifice all the fun that one should be having at university. The only sacrifice that needed to be made was the nightly eight hours of sleep.

While the years have passed, times have not changed--for our society at large. We stay up later than ever to party, study, and work. We erroneously believe that these extra hours awake will increase our productivity and make us better at school and/or our jobs. 

A major problem with this school of thought is that science has clearly demonstrated the negatives associated with "burning the candle at both ends" . According to Harvard Medical School, "...a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury." 

At the least, we've wasted our time cramming information into our heads that we have little hope to retain and be able to recall at a later date. At the worst, we potentially risk life and limb as a result of the depreciated cognitive and physical states that we are in due to this sleep deprivation. 

Long term, the effects are even more pernicious. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. In other words, the cumulative effect of all this sleep deprivation is making us dumber and fatter and sending us to an early grave. 

None of us want to be dumber, fatter, or die earlier, so how do we change this negative trend? Here are a few things that Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition advocates in "Hacking Sleep." that we should implement:
  1.  Exercise Regularly. "Exercising regularly helps normalize circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function." A caveat to consider: intense workouts at night can rev us up, costing us precious sleep. Berardi says that we should leave this intense workouts for during the day.
  2. Keep the Room as Dark as Possible. "Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that signals to your body it is time for sleep. Making your room as dark as possible will maximize your melatonin production." The light from your electronic devices (e.g. cell phones, tablets, computers) inhibits melatonin production and makes it harder to fall asleep. So, turn these off before bed or turn your iPhone face down if you are using it as an alarm clock. 
  3. Courtesy Ashley Pahl
  4. Do a Brain Dump. Don't stress out about all of the things that you have on tap for tomorrow. This only increases stress and further prevents you from relaxing and falling asleep. Instead, write down everything that you need to do. An example is shown right. This gets it out of your head and allows for true relaxation.
Implement these three strategies to create better sleep patterns and get more from your sleep. 

To read more about sleep and sleep deprivation, check out these articles from Harvard Medical School, New York Magazine, Equinox, and Precision Nutrition.


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