Sleep: Think You Can Do Without It?


This is the cutting edge of health!

A recent TED Talk has grabbed my attention. The topic is sleep. (I’ve written before about this vastly under-appreciated component of health here and here.) The presenter is Dr. Kirk Parsley. Dr. Parsley is a former Navy Seal. He’s been a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine since 2006 and served as Naval Special Warfare’s expert on sleep medicine.  In other words, he’s familiar with lack of sleep and its effects. 

Among other things, he discusses our cultural view of sleep which is one that I’ve observed as well. It seems that a lot of us recognize the necessity of good eating and vigorous exercise as part of getting in top-notch shape but sleep seems to be a footnote. It’s often dismissed without much thought. We look at sleep as an obstacle to productivity. It’s like a leisure activity done only by babies and the weak. The productive go-getters hardly sleep–they work!

I’ve had a lot of people say something along the line of, “Oh well, I can’t ever get to bed that early,” or “Yeah… I know… I just wind up staying up late.” Some people seem to think they don’t need sleep.  “I feel fine with five hours of sleep,” or something like that. Here, from the National Institutes of Health, are a few of the negative health effects of lack of sleep:

In the past 10 or more years, research has overturned the dogma that sleep loss has no health effects, apart from daytime sleepiness. The studies discussed in this section suggest that sleep loss (less than 7 hours per night) may have wide-ranging effects on the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, including the following:

  • Obesity in adults and children
  • Diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance
  • Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
  • Anxiety symptoms
  • Depressed mood
  • Alcohol use

The evidence suggests strongly that if you’re not sleeping enough then you’re not performing as well as you’d like and your health is suffering. In my totally anecdotal experience, the days when I get to bed early and sleep in for a little while results in my feeling phenomenal. I’m going to try and do that more often. Here’s the TED talk:

Good Reads: Rethinking Sleep, A Look At “Hardcore” Workouts


Two recent articles have caught my attention.  One comes from the New York Times; the other is a two-part piece from a blog called Fit For Real Life.  The Times article presents some new concepts on our sleep patterns.  The blog post gives a good insight on workout intensity and why more doesn’t always equal better.


“It seemed that, given a chance to be free of modern life, the body would naturally settle into a split sleep schedule. “

I’m a big fan of sleep.  I’ve mentioned here and here that lack of sleep is tied to various ailments such as obesity and obesity-related issues like diabetes.  As I’ve always understood it, most adults need 8-9 hours of sleep a night.  (I also understand it that a small part of the adult population actually thrives on five or fewer hours of sleep per night.  I wish that were me.)  The NY Times article Rethinking Sleep has me… rethinking sleep.

The article describes the American view of bedtime and sleep and contrasts that with other cultures’ take on the same thing::

“Typically, mention of our ever increasing sleeplessness is followed by calls for earlier bedtimes and a longer night’s sleep. But this directive may be part of the problem. Rather than helping us to get more rest, the tyranny of the eight-hour block reinforces a narrow conception of sleep and how we should approach it. Some of the time we spend tossing and turning may even result from misconceptions about sleep and our bodily needs: in fact neither our bodies nor our brains are built for the roughly one-third of our lives that we spend in bed.

The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour chunks is relatively recent. The world’s population sleeps in various and surprising ways. Millions of Chinese workers continue to put their heads on their desks for a nap of an hour or so after lunch, for example, and daytime napping is common from India to Spain.”

The article goes on to cite historical variations on sleep including a mention in the Canterbury Tales of going back to sleep after her “firste sleepe.”  Further, physicians from the 16th century mention “first sleep” and “second sleep.”  Research from the NIH supports the concept that divided sleep patterns may naturally occur during the night.

Deep sleep or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is discussed.  This is the most valuable sleep time during which our brains are highly active.  REM sleep aids cognitive function, helping us solve problems and perform at a mentally high level.  The benefits of REM sleep can be derived from any type of sleeping pattern, not just from eight straight hours of sleep.  Research suggests that brief naps can be quite useful.

The article concludes with a discussion of workplace napping.  Though napping at work isn’t allowed for most of us, the concept may be gaining traction at some places such as Google. The Army is also experimenting with the concept for soldiers who need to be ready to fight around the clocks.  Strategic naps may be essential to keep them ready for war.  The Texas Rangers baseball team has also prioritized sleep and napping for its players.

I can say from my own experience that napping during the day is way more than a luxury.  Since I’m a personal trainer I tend to be able to nap on most days of the week.  I believe it’s absolutely essential for my mental state and my overall health.  I couldn’t imagine taking another job that didn’t allow for it.  The pay would have to be MUCH higher, and I imagine I’d hate life a little for it.

“Hardcore” Workouts

“There is a finite amount of quality movement before the movement pattern breaks down, eventually degrading enough that your body is at risk for a variety of issues, including injury, if it continues.”

I found this two-parter on Twitter and I really like what the writer has to say. Her words echo my observations of many a gym member’s exercise routines and many a personal trainer’s training strategies–namely “more/harder is better.” Any idiot can exercise–or push someone else to exercise–until he or she vomits, passes out, or collapses. Easy! Swing a 24 kg kettlebell 800 times in an hour then do 100 pushups.  Run 20 x 400 m all-out sprints with one minute rest between sprints. Add more weight. Go faster. There is a better way to work out.

The articles do a very good job of explaining what happens as we fatigue, namely we don’t move as well.  We collapse at the feet, knees, hips, spine…  We set ourselves up for needless wear, tear, and injury. It’s a very good read and here are the links:

“It’s a dangerous thing to think that harder/more is better. It’s not. In fact, it’s likely what limits the long-term fitness success of many. And, when used incorrectly (as I see far too often)- it’s the fast-track to injury.”  The Poison Is In the Dose: A Look At “Hard-core” Workouts”

“So what if your movement patterns are dysfunctional? Fix them. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If something isn’t working don’t continue doing it: that only teaches dysfunction & permanent faulty movement patterns.”  Where There’s Smoke, Don’t Fan the Fire: Continuing Our Look at “Hard-Core Workouts”


Sleep: An Essential Ingredient


I’ve mentioned previously that lack of sleep contributes to obesity.  (Also look here and here.) Missing sleep has also been linked to increased risk of stroke and possibly depression.  Lack of sleep can predict which older adults will move to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Finally, sleep has been shown to improve performance in swimmers, college basketball players, and college football players.

Important stuff this sleep!  Sounds like we need frequent good doses of it to be healthy and perform well.  We may be sabotaging our sleep though if we look at electronic screens at night before bed.

Recent articles in the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune discuss the disruptive effect of electronic “blue light” (such light is emitted by phones, computers and TVs) on our circadian rhythms.  We often look at these electronic devices at night before bed with the result being poor sleep and the following host of problems.  In fact, the American Medical Association released a statement on blue light saying, “that exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders, especially in children and adolescents.”

Essentially, blue light is prominent during daylight.  Looking at a screen–especially one like a smartphone which is near our face–seems to make our brain think it’s day time when it isn’t.  I won’t go into all the details but they are interesting.  Have a look at the articles for more information.  As for solutions, 5 Ways to Unplug at Night for Better Sleep offers some suggestions for avoiding computers at night.

Getting away from the electronics at night is very similar to changing our eating habits to lose weight.  Reward centers in the brain are triggered by our devices and the stimulation they deliver.  It can be difficult to alter that pattern.  I find it difficult to change my ways.  I’m as guilty as anyone in looking at an electronic screen at night.  Lately I’m consciously working to turn off these devices well before I go to bed. Sometimes it’s tough.  A really good book can help. (If George RR Martin will hurry up and finish the Winds of Winter then it’ll make ditching these gadgets much easier…)



Less Sleep = More Eat


A recent study from the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University indicates that lack of sleep contributes to overeating and thus obesity.  Here is the conclusion:

The findings of this study link restricted sleep and susceptibility to food stimuli and are consistent with the notion that reduced sleep may lead to greater propensity to overeat.

What’s happening here?  Researchers found that, “Overall neuronal activity in response to food stimuli was greater after restricted sleep than after habitual sleep. In addition, a relative increase in brain activity in areas associated with reward… in response to food stimuli, was observed.”

So it seems that sleep restriction caused subjects to like food more.  They found it more rewarding.  Weird!  The take home message is obvious: Get some sleep!

In this study subjects either slept about nine hours or were restricted to only four hours.  How much sleep should you get?  Ideal sleep time may vary from person to person.  WebMD says, “Most adults need seven to eight hours a night for the best amount of sleep, although some people may need as few as five hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day.”  If you’re a hard-training athlete then you probably need to be on the high side of those numbers.