“There is plenty of compelling evidence that sleep is the most important predictor of how long you will live.”
– William Dement, co-founder of Stanford University’s Sleep Center
Wow. Could this be true?
Surpringly, it is!
In study after study, researchers confirm sleep deprivation has the greatest impact on a person’s overall health—even more so than obesity! This is an ominous conclusion given the fact that, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 74% of Americans adults admit to being chronically under slept (which by definition is clocking less than 7-8 hours per night).
A particularly fascinating study from England most recently verified Dr. Dement’s conclusion when it found the life span of people who regularly slept less than 7 hours each night was significantly reduced when compared
with their adequately rested counterparts.
I know—sometimes it can seem difficult to make sleep a priority. Long hours at the office, career-climbing stress, and juggling a work-life balance can all get in the way. But sleep is so vital to your overall well-being.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF SLEEP
Sleep has been crafted in a highly specialized way. Though you might think you sleep straight through the night, sleep actually occurs in approximately 90-minute cycles. These cycles consist of four phases: fragmented sleep (5 min), light sleep (40-50 min), deep sleep (20 min) and finally, dream sleep (5-15 min). A full night’s sleep (7-8 hours) would have you passing through five of these well-constructed cycles.
Each phase of the sleep cycle is associated with its own unique brain waves, which is how scientists have been able to study it. During light and deep sleep your body’s “electrical crew” sets to work repairing and testing your nervous system, from the cellular (neuron) level to the entire length of each nerve. When you enter into deep sleep many crucial restoration processes take place, including the rebuilding of your bones and muscles, the manufacturing of your body’s hormones, and the replenishing of your brain’s neurotransmitters (i.e. serotonin).
Interestingly, the dream phase of sleep comes with a very unique feature—all of your body’s muscles become paralyzed with just three exceptions: the muscles of your eyes (so you can watch your dreams play out!), your heart (so your blood keeps pumping) and your diaphragm (so you continue to breathe). This lack of mobility has two purposes: first, it makes you incapable of acting out your dreams, and second, it allows your body to sequential test the firing of your newly repaired muscle cells.
CONSEQUENCES OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION
Think about it, if you only spend enough time sleeping to pass through four, rather than five sleep cycles, you are missing out on 20% of all that restorative goodness! In my book, Sleep Well Again, I detail six significant health penalties you and I are forced to pay if we carry a heavy load of sleep debt. Here’s one you’ve probably never thought of: weight gain. That’s right; when you sleep less than 7 hours each night, you set up an imbalance between the two hormones which control your hunger. Those who are sleep deprived produce too much of the “I’m hungry!” hormone and too little of the “I’m satisfied” hormone. So, the next time you are looking to drop a few pounds, you should begin with making sure you are well slept!
BALANCING YOUR HEALTH ACCOUNT
If you look at sleep as a form of currency in the health account of your life, you must put in one deposit for every two withdrawals in order for your body to function optimally and your intended lifespan to be lived out. Basically, this requires you to sleep eight hours asleep for every 16 hours awake. Over time, if you skimp on your deposits in order to indulge in withdrawals, you will sooner or later wind up in health bankruptcy—which takes the form of increased illnesses, disease production, disabilities, and, as science has made abundantly clear, a significantly shortened life span.
The fix to this health-sapping problem is largely in our own hands. Personally, I believe it helps to gain a biblical perspective on the issue.
King David says it best in Psalms 127:2, “It is in vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, He gives his beloved sleep.”
Sleep is truly a gift offered to us all; we just need to take hold of that gift for ourselves. By making sleep a priority you will replenish your health account and improve both the quality and quantity of the years you have to live.