Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Super Sleep

on May 19, 2014

DSCF7541Last time I visited my doctor, she asked me how many hours I slept each night.

“Between seven and eight hours,” I said.

“You need nine hours of sleep,” she informed me. “Latest research shows that people should sleep nine hours each night for optimal health.” She looked sternly over her glasses at me. “Nine hours.”

The thing is, I don’t set an alarm. I haven’t for years (no one wants to be photographed at 7 am.) Most nights, I’m asleep between 10-11 pm. And most mornings, I’m awake between 6-7 am. To sleep nine hours, it seems like I’d need sleeping pills, so I decided to do a little research.

We have at least two phases of sleep. The first, called deep sleep, is where our brain processes our short term memories into long term storage. We only have a twenty-four hour window to complete this process, so if we don’t get enough deep sleep, the memories are lost forever.

The second phase is REM sleep. During this phase, our bodies are paralysed, but our eyes can – and do – move. Hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep our brains process everything that happened the day before, and to keep us calm while it processes, a chemical called noradrenalin shuts off.

If we don’t get enough REM sleep, our brain doesn’t have time to deal with everything we experienced, our bodies don’t get enough non-noradrenalin time, and we become stressed and anxious.

Sleep studies have shown that humans are hard-wired for a minimum of seven hours sleep. Less sleep means higher inflammation (arthritis) and stress, impaired immune response, and greater activity in genes that are associated with cancer and diabetes.

What about those people who claim to need only four hours of sleep a night? They’ve been studied. They are not wired differently than the rest of us. They perform better and are healthier with more than seven hours of sleep. By shortening their sleep cycle, they’re setting themselves up for poor physical and emotional health, not to mention accelerated aging.

This is true for people who sleep only six-and-a-half hours, too. That extra hour or two is crucial. We can’t do an end-run around sleep, not without paying the price.

It’s time to end the myth that those who need less sleep are somehow more productive (and virtuous.) It’s a lie. It’s a product of the protestant work ethic gone awry.

Back to my doctor’s recommendation. Nine hours? I’ve experimented with laying in bed for that extra hour. About half the time, I fall back asleep. I feel GREAT when I awaken. I think I’ll stay with this experiment until it’s habit.

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