sleep better, grow younger

If you didn’t get it already from the title what I’m aiming to dig into here is the area of getting enough Z’s and why that might just help save your bacon (apologies to the vegetarians … but you get my drift!). This is possibly covering ground you may already be either very familiar with or perhaps you simply don’t need to be taught to suck eggs and if that’s the case then move along guys, nothing to see here. But research suggest that at one time or other in our life sleep presents some kind of an issue. Having once spent 10 years married to a chronic insomniac I’m also well aware of how one persons sleep disorder can easily become another’s waking nightmare.

What we know is that poor sleep is directly correlated to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer, mental health conditions such as depression and stress disorders, lowered brain function and is unsurprisingly causally related to all kinds of accidents and major disasters. Were you aware that sleep deprivation was a factor in the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl? I mean really, really big whoops! The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year .

In 2013 researchers from the University of Surrey in the UK published findings showing that more than 700 genes were adversely affected by only 7 days of poor sleep levels. According to the lead author Prof Colin Smith …

‘Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur – hinting at what may lead to ill health. If we can’t actually replenish and replace new cells, then that’s going to lead to degenerative diseases.’


And seeing we’re currently looking at outside in approaches and effects yet another study published in 2013, this time researchers at Case Western in Ohio looked at sleep deprivation in a group of women aged 30-49 with a particular focus on skin aging and function. So simply put: how we end up looking old when our sleep is poor. They used an assessment system that looks at both intrinsic and extrinsic signs of aging and unsurprisingly here too found …

‘… statistically significant differences between good and poor quality sleepers. Using the SCINEXA skin aging scoring system, poor quality sleepers showed increased signs of intrinsic skin aging including fine lines, uneven pigmentation and slackening of skin and reduced elasticity.’

Now that we’ve heard a fair bit of the scary stuff we should all have at least some motivation to try and get a decent amount of Z’s in each night, right? But then that too raises it’s own can of worms doesn’t it? I mean for a start what actually constitutes enough or an optimal level of sleep?

Well according to the US based National Sleep Foundation (sounds pretty promising to start with don’t you think?) whilst there is no magic number for all of us,  a number of studies have pointed to somewhere between 7-9 hours as being the golden zone. As a caution, the Foundation also report that these benefits form something of a U shaped curve and the health downsides accrue rapidly once we step further outside of the 7-9 comfort zone. While we’ve already heard plenty about the downsides of getting too little of it, in a 2004 meta-analysis  it was announced that too much sleep is actually a predictor of greater mortality when compared to optimal (7-9) or for that matter even compared with small amounts of sleep restriction. So all said somewhere in that 7-9 safe zone seems the target. What suits you though is clearly a matter of personal needs. Quite literally … go figure.

Well all that’s just fine and dandy, but as we all know what’s best and what we can actually get can often be two different critters entirely can’t they? All manner of obstacles litter the freeway of happy sandman time. As I mentioned myself living with a chronic insomniac is not conducive to one’s own comfortable bedtime. So here’s a few ideas on some of the hows that can help and may also just save your sleepytime bacon:

  1. Check out if there are any health or physical issues that are in the way. The number one is apnea but there are all manner of issues that may impede and at the same time don’t forget to consider any medications you’re on. According to my good mate Dr Mark Atkinson…                                                                                                                                                                                                  ‘The main one’s are cough and cold remedies that contain phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine, painkillers and tablets containing caffeine, steroids and stimulants such as Ritalin and antihistamines’                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Here’s where a visit to that medical ally you’ve now got onside will pay you out in gold. Also consider issues such as depression as these too can cause sleep disturbance and may certainly contribute to over sleep. And whilst we’re here let’s also consider the potential negative impact of sleeping together. As I experienced: a restless partner = restless you. Same if the bedmate is a chronic snorer. Yep the closeness is lovely but not if you’re paying out with health and longevity.
  1. Try and create a regularity to your sleep time. In some areas of life it’s great to mix it up a little, to try and shake up the body’s tendency to adaptation, but sleep is one area where this can do way more harm than good.
  1. How is the environment? Create a safe, calm, quiet place where relaxation is easy. Ensuring it’s suitably dark and slightly cool will also help. It’s also considered a good idea to keep the bedroom as a place for only two things: sleeping and sex. Though hopefully you’re not attempting both at the same time!
  1. This should go without saying really but exercise. Doing so helps ensure you’re suitably physically tired by the time you climb under the covers. No brainer!
  1. No stimulants before bedtime meaning booze, caffeine drinks, sweet sugary gunk and even having meals close to the golden hour can impact negatively. All of these can land you in that weird physical paradox we’ve all experienced at some time or other where the spirit is willing but the body is still on high alert. Sir, put down the double hot chocolate with extra cream and marshmallows now and put your both hands on the pillow!
  1. And also step away from the technology! Oh it’s so tempting isn’t it just? But we all know how stimulating all our mesmerising gizmos are these days – TV’s, games, computers, tablets, smartphones. Our lives are ever more being interwoven with our dependence on and unquestioned adaptation to all these devices that they’ve all somewhat surreptitiously become the new normal. Just one hundred years ago you were lucky if you had an electric light with which you might read a book (yes, one even made of paper … remember that stuff?). And now? Well now you can be saving the human race on another side of the galaxy one minute and then trying to tuck yourself in the next. Give it a rest and you might just get one.
  1. So here we go again weaving in other areas into the tapestry that is the Grow Young program. Research has shown mindfulness meditation to be a powerful tool to manage insomnia as a recent study shows it helps to allow for sleep to unfold rather than increasing efforts to clear the mind or try harder to make sleep happen’  If nothing else you’ll manage to let go of the anxiety of not sleeping well, as well as quelling the endlessly rotating stories that circulate around our unable-to-rest thinking boxes.

While there have been a bunch of theories considering whether we need less sleep as we age it appears that most often we surely tend to get less quality sleep the further on along the road we are. In a 2014 study published in the journal Brain  the authors announced that it appears as though there is an area of the brain known to regulate sleep which just seems to die off in many of us over time and one group particularly affected is those found to be suffering from that later life scourge known as Alzheimer’s. One suggestion is if you’re struggling with getting it all in in one bite then consider incorporating naps into your day. These days there’s a huge swathe of data showing the restorative benefits of even quite short nap durations as a way of mitigating all those unpleasant health downsides we started out talking about here.

Right that’s me done. Time to practice a little of what I preach! Night John boy.

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