One-third of your life is spent sleeping. While we rest, we shift into another mode of operation when our brains release critical hormones that repair damaged tissues, encourage connective tissue repair and muscle growth, regulate the immune system, detox the brain, and produce energy.
The latest sleep research reveals that the brain manages a vast number of complex networks to control our sleep through changing communications patterns and dynamic characteristics—much more than the four stages of sleep and REM that is already familiar to us. This new research reinforces that sleep is even more essential than we ever knew for our bodies and our minds to heal, recover and recharge, especially if recovering from injury, illness or surgery.
But if you, like over one-third of all American adults, are getting less than the minimum seven hours of sleep each night, it’s harder for your body to heal. In fact, sleep deprivation is so prevalent in the US that leading researchers at the Center for Disease Control have declared sleep deprivation an epidemic. And serious consequences to this growing epidemic are showing up everywhere.
Whether it is difficulty remembering things, trouble doing basic arithmetic, suffering mood swings, feeling muscle fatigue and pain, developing diabetes or anxiety, or experiencing reduced performance endurance, sleep deprivation seriously impacts the way we perceive and interact with reality.
For example, sleep deprivation is now one of the most significant lifestyle factors influencing the development of Alzheimer’s, as suggested in a study at the NIH that describes sleep as the linchpin in clearing the brain – when the “rinse cycle” detoxes our brains of sticky toxic amyloids. Recent findings also show that individuals who routinely sleep five hours a night have a 65 percent increased risk of dying at any moment in time, relative to those getting 7-9. Some researchers believe disordered sleep may be more responsible for morbidity and mortality in Americans than cardiovascular disease and pulmonary conditions combined.
Concerning our musculoskeletal health specifically, sleep deprivation was reported in Arthritis & Rheumatology to be the strongest, independent predictor of widespread pain in adults over the age of 50. And new research from Sweden showed that when men lost just one night of their usual amount of sleep, their bodies’ experienced changes that promote weight gain and muscle loss. This is because sleep deprivation increases the body’s capacity for holding onto body fat, while the muscles show signs of increasing breakdown due to an inefficiency in the muscles’ ability to use blood sugar as fuel.
Similarly, performance experts will tell you that the single most important intervention with the greatest effect on improving performance is sleep optimization. Research has shown that being sleep deprived is associated with becoming physically fatigued sooner, a reduction in aerobic output, reduced muscle strength, metabolic slowing, and an increased risk of injury across seasons of more than 200 percent. Athletes know this and put sleep up on their lists of priorities, along with training and eating well. Reigning world tennis champ Serena Williams credits her top level of play to going to bed by 7:00 pm nightly.
So whether it’s recovery from surgery, a desire to lose weight, a goal of running a marathon, or relieving chronic pain levels, sleep is a critical piece of your way back to optimal health.
Many of us may not fully realize that we’re sleep deprived as we’ve adapted to a chronic feeling of sleeplessness and fatigue. Exhaustion has become a new medal of honor, depicting our sense of busy-ness and importance. But somewhere in your life, a toll is being extracted. Questions to ask yourself that will let you know if your sleep is off:
- Are you able to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of lying down?
- Do you regularly sleep for a total of 7-9 hours during any given 24 hour period?
- Is your sleep continuous – not characterized by periods of waking?
- When you awake, do you feel alert, refreshed and productive throughout most of the day?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, now may be a good time to consider making some changes so you can benefit from all the ways a good night’s sleep can deliver, including quicker, more complete recovery from an injury, illness or surgery.
Try for at least 7-9 hours of shut-eye for maximum regeneration. Remember that getting plenty of rest is arguably the most important strategy for bouncing back.
Sleep promoting strategies include:
- Hit the Shower—the hot water can help soothe muscles and promote relaxation.
- Get a therapeutic massage.
- Increase your bright light exposure during the day.
- Reduce blue light exposure from your devices and lighting, especially in your bedroom.
- Exercise regularly.
- Sleep and wake at consistent times.
- Don’t drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or eat heavy meals before you sleep.
- Keep your bedroom cool – between 60 and 67 degrees.
- Wind down for 1-2 hours before going to sleep.
Some new trends coming forward on the hot topic of sleep optimization include:
- Better sleep surfaces – mattresses, pillows bedding
- Weighted blankets
- Better sound-proofing
- Natural lighting
- Better PJs
- Easier, more efficient schedules
- More respect for the importance of sleep