What’s the latest miracle drug? Sleep!

sleepSleep gets short shrift in our society.  Health advocates promote the importance of diet and exercise, but sleep is seldom mentioned.

Yet it’s the third leg of the health tripod.

We spend over one-third [36%] of our lives doing it. So if you’re 90 years old, you’ve spent 32 years asleep.  Sobering, isn’t it?

The latest research shows that sleep is a bit of a miracle drug and we should all be taking it more seriously.

I’ll admit that I have spent a fair amount of time in my life fantasizing about how much more I could get done if I had more waking hours.  I’ve even written posts on how to be more productive.

But no less a power player than Arianna Huffington, in her TED talk, sang the praises of getting enough sleep.  That’s a position she moved to after fainting from exhaustion, hitting her head on her desk, and breaking her cheekbone requiring five stitches on her right eye. That would make me a convert, too.

Getting enough sleep improves your life in so many ways that it could be considered a key to success, in spite of Margaret Thatcher saying sleep is for wimps and Thomas Edison’s proclamation that it’s a criminal waste of time.

Here’s why Thatcher and Edison were both wrong about sleep

The brain doesn’t shut down when we sleep.  In fact, some areas of the brain are more active during sleep than when awake. While part of us is getting much needed rest, another part is learning and processing.

Reasons why we sleep:

  1. To restore, replace, rebuild during the night.  There are genes in charge of restoration that only are turned on at night.
  2. To conserve energy.
  3. To allow time for brain processing and memory consolidation. If you’re trying to learn a task and become sleep-deprived, your ability to learn hugely diminishes. Our ability to problem solve and create is greatly enhanced by a good night’s sleep. 

It’s said that money can’t buy happiness, but perhaps sleep can: In a University of Michigan study, psychologist Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D. found that: “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”

When a doctor used to say, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” it may have been sleep that did more good than the aspirin.

As you sleep, your brain processes your day.  And it most likely is processing the most recent thing you did.  That’s why what you read or watch on T.V. in the hour or two before going to bed will affect your dreams.

Do you really want to be processing the latest murder on Criminal Minds instead of  the inspiring topic in a book by the Dalai Lama?

How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? 

In the words of neuroscientist Russell Foster, “It’s not rocket science.  If you need an alarm clock to wake up, if you need stimulants, if you take a long time to get up, if you’re irritable, chances are you’re sleep deprived.”

According to a Harvard University study, 75% of Americans have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, so much of us are sleep deprived.

In the 1950s, most of us were getting 8 hours of sleep a night. Today we’re in the range of 6.5 – 7 hours.

Teenagers need nine hours for full brain performance but many are only getting 5 hours.

The experts say to simply listen to your body and figure out what’s right for you.  8 hours is an average.  Some need more, and some less.

By the way, it’s not true that older people need less sleep.

9 Reasons to get enough sleep

  1. Makes us smarter by improving memory: sleep helps us process new information. Research finds people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
  2. Reduces chronic inflammation, including arthritis.
  3. Safety:  A good night’s sleep makes us more active and alert the following day. Sleep deprivation can contribute to medical error, air traffic mishaps and road accidents. It’s estimated 31% of drivers will fall asleep at the wheel at least once in their life. The tragedies of Chernobyl and the space shuttle Challenger were partially attributed to poor judgment as a result of extended shift work and tiredness.
  4. Can help us lose weight. Chronic sleep deprivation triggers hormones that increase our appetites. If you sleep 5 hours or less any night, you have a 50% likelihood of being obese.
  5. Improves our mood:  getting enough sleep helps regulate serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
  6. Keeps our heart healthy. Lack of sleep has been associated with increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  7. Sleep deprivation diminishes immune function. Keeping up with sleep may help fight cancer.
  8. Helps our bodies repair cell damage caused by stress, ultraviolet rays and other harmful products. Muscle injuries and other traumas also heal faster during sleep.
  9. Helps reduce stress

Here’s the word on stress and lack of sleep:

  • Tired people are massively stressed.
  • Sustained stress associated with sleep loss suppresses your immunity, so tired people tend to have overall higher rates of infection.
  • Some studies show shift workers have higher rates of cancer.
  • Increased levels of stress lead to becoming glucose intolerant, which leads to diabetes 2.
  • Stress increases cardiovascular disease as a result of raising blood pressure. 

Some solutions to your sleep troubles

  • Make your bedroom a haven for sleep: make it as dark as possible, and slightly cool.
  • Be in bed by 10 pm each night.
  • Reduce your amount of light exposure a half hour before bed. Light increases levels of alertness and will delay sleep.
  • Turn off T.V., mobile phones, computers. Turn off everything that excites the brain.
  • Don’t drink caffeine after lunch. 

I’ve never faced any problem that didn’t look easier after a good nights sleep. Hopefully that will apply to you, too.


Molly Larkin

Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller "The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman”  and other books on health. She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes, healing practice and blog at www.MollyLarkin.com

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