Let Me Introduce You To The Love of My Life: Sleep! Part 1

Getting to know Morpheus (If you don’t know who Morpheus is, keep reading)

When starting a blog about nutrition and health, sleep had to come up at some point! Given its importance, it’s even a bit late in the game! I am actually happy to be writing about sleep because it is, without a doubt, one of my favorite things to do! I swear, the day I have kids, I want them to be like me. Well… Maybe not entirely because let’s face it, I couldn’t deal with another me in a million years, but I’d like them to sleep like I do. I think it’s pretty safe to say that my parents are still grateful to this day that both, my brother and I, were totally in love with sleeping. Putting us to bed was definitely not the worst part of their day (maybe the waking up part was though. I guess they didn’t have it that easy after all!). 

The more I learn about sleep, the less guilty I feel from sometimes bailing on my friends because I am tired (sorry fam!). Sleep is actually the number one overlooked health issue in the US and yet, it is a critical aspect of our health.

Diet and exercise have made their way on the “healthy lifestyle” list, which is good, but what about sleep? When looking at entrepreneurs, these ideas of “working 24/7”, “being a proud workoholic”, having a”no days off policy”, that fixed mindset of crap is deeply rooted in our perception and definition of success and yet… it is destroying our health more than the lack of exercise, and healthy diet altogether. Working hard is one thing, working smart is another (resting hard and smart is my thing… 😎 ).

What Happens When We’re Deep Into Unconscious Territory?

Even though there are tons of studies about sleep, we still don’t know exactly how/why/what really happens when we are sleeping. We know that it is our way of hitting the reset button every night and recharge our batteries, and that there is no way around it. If we don’t, we die – as easy as that! 

Here are a few things we know for sure:

When sleeping, we go through different stages. For the nerds out there, those stages are measured by the change in our brain activity (the change in brain waves), that can be observed if you go to a sleep clinic and put all that funky spaghetti on your head.

Stages 1 and 2 (Light sleep, Alpha – Theta brain waves): this is right when we’re falling asleep. Everything is slowing down (heart rate, blood pressure), but we could still be easily woken up. If you’re planning on taking a power nap during the day, those are the stages you want to stay in! 

Stage 3 (deep sleep, Delta brain waves): Deep sleep usually occurs in the first half of the night and that’s when all the repairs take place. At this point, it would take an earthquake for us to wake up, which explains why when we need to wake up exceptionally early, we sleep through our alarm without remembering a thing (if you’ve ever missed a flight because of that, you’re not alone).

However, even though we’re deep into unconscious territory, there are a lot of things going on in our body.  There is a cascade of hormones being released (actually, 75% of our human growth hormone (HGH) is released during deep sleep), that repair all of the muscles and tissues that might have been damaged during the day. If you’re the type who likes to pick things up and put them down, that’s the moment where your body is actually getting stronger! Our core temperature goes down*, the immune system gets a boost, and we build up the energy for the next day. 

(*Ladies (guys you may skip this part!) : if you are not taking any hormonal birth control, you’ll observe that body temperature goes down for the first part of the cycle, goes up about one or two days before ovulation, and then, stays up until the first day of your period, and goes back down again as soon as your period starts. It’s pretty cool because you can track accurately when you’re ovulating, and when your period is about to start. However, most devices that track your sleep do not account for hormonal changes and therefore might advise you to take it easy, when there is actually nothing wrong with you.) 

Rapid Eye Movement (REM sleep): This is the part where we dream, and it usually takes place during the second half of the night. I’ve heard countless times: “I don’t dream, my sleep is too deep”. If that was true, we’d live in a world full of very mentally challenged people (actually… maybe that explains it…). Kidding aside, you might not remember your dreams, but let me assure you, everybody dreams. REM sleep allows memory consolidation, and allows the brain to process everything that has been happening during the day. Which is why, bragging about not dreaming is not doing yourself a favor!

Getting good at remembering dreams is like everything, it takes practice, but a lot of great ideas come from dreams (Google, the sewing machine, the “Yesterday”‘ song from the Beatles, Frankenstein ect,..)! And if you really want to go Full-Badass on the subject, you can try and practice lucid dreaming which is a whole other level. That’s actually been shown to overcome challenges, help with decision making, and sports (basically our brain is creating new pathways, which we can use once we’re awake). It’s like visualization, but more powerful because we’re tricking our brain into believing that what we want to accomplish has already been done. 

Why is Sleep Important

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, I’ve heard this so many times (FYI : you might actually die sooner than you’d like then…). Some people think sleep is such a waste of time, and that since they’re not doing anything, they could be so much more productive doing something else. I don’t trust those people. To me, it is as crazy as refusing a piece of cake because “you’re not hungry.”

Besides not trusting anyone that doesn’t like to sleep (a pretty subjective statement, I admit), they couldn’t be more wrong, and here is why:

Brain Function 

While you may think sleeping is a waste of time and you’d be better off doing something more productive (aka scrolling social media, watching Netflix, or getting drunk and stupid somewhere…), our brain needs sleep to be able to function properly.

When we sleep, pretty cool stuff happens, our brain’s getting a bath, literally cleaning itself from all the waste that builds up. This is called the glymphatic system. This has been discovered pretty recently, and it only happens during sleep. During REM sleep, it processes everything we’ve learned during the day and consolidates our memory. Everything we’ve learned is being moved from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. For students, pulling an all-nighter (my biggest nightmare in college), will decrease learning capacity by 40%. To put this another way, if you find yourself screwed the day before an exam, you might as well get some sleep…

It’s also been shown that just one night of deprived sleep will result in a 6% decrease of glucose reaching the brain. That’s an issue because our brain runs exclusively on glucose (our little guy up there consumes up to 25% of our daily calories!) and if less glucose is reaching our brain… we get dumber! 

If you don’t like to sleep and think it’s a waste of time, think of it as an investment: you will be more productive after a good night of high quality sleep. You will be more focused, remember things more clearly, and won’t have any brain fog. If sometimes you walk into a room forgetting what you were looking for, it might not be because you’re distracted, but because you’re sleep deprived! It also helps with decision making! As Bill Clinton said : “all the bad decisions I made was when I was sleep deprived” (apparently he did not specify which ones he was referring to). 

Hormone Regulation 

This is a big one! I might lose about 80% of people here, but I’ll try to keep it to the point! In a nutshell, hormones deliver messages in the body. Everything from: “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”, “I’m stressed out”, “I want to kill someone”, ect, are feelings that have been induced by our hormones.  

One of the big players in hormone regulation is our circadian rhythm (another fancy word), which basically means, our internal clock (sleep-wake cycle). It gets cues from our environment to know what hormones to release and when. Example: when it gets dark outside, a signal is sent to the brain to start releasing melatonin (the sleep hormone), and then boom, the next thing you know, you get sleepy. Or at least, that’s the theory.  

The problem is, with the way we live now, our circadian rhythm gets completely messed up and as a consequence, our hormones are not released at the right time, nor in the right amount and this leads to a cascade of unwanted effects. One of the main reasons is, being light-deprived during the day, and overexposed to artificial lights at night. 

In an ideal world, our body would release melatonin at night, gradually slowing down throughout the night, and release cortisol in the morning to wake us up. Easy peasy.

As previously mentioned, during sleep, especially during deep sleep, the body produces Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which comes into play to repair any damages that have been done to the muscles/tissues during the day, and heal anything that needs attention. Being a slightly sporty person, this one is very important for me. Familiar with the famous saying “abs are made in the kitchen?” Well, your entire body maintenance process is made in your bed. Remember that! 

A word about leptin, ghrelin and insulin (we’ll get back to those later). As I said, hormones deliver messages : leptin let’s our brain know when we’ve had enough to eat, ghrelin let’s us know when we are hungry, and insulin get’s rid of the sugar in our blood when we couldn’t resist a plate of pasta. When you throw your sleep out the window, these hormones get out of whack and you will discover a bit later how this impacts your weight.

And for you gentlemen, testosterone… Only 1 hour of sleep deprivation will decrease your testosterone levels by 15%! That might not seem like a lot, but it’s basically the equivalent to having aged 10 to 15 years! It’s also associated with erectile dysfunction. Not so cool. So much for those supposedly “badass guys”, proud to advertise how little they sleep and how much of a work machine they are… That’s possibly the only thing they can brag about…

The Immune System

“If you are not sleeping well, you are not healing well” – Shawn Stevenson. 

If you read this blog regularly, you should know how crucial our immune system is (if not, please click here, and read this article first). Melatonin, on top of being the hormone that puts us to sleep (and keeps us asleep), also improves our immune system.

From there, it is easy to understand that the other way around is true as well : when we are sleep deprived, our super badass army isn’t performing at their peak level. In fact, they would be far from performing at their peak level. An interesting study revealed that people sleeping 6 hours or less per night were four times more likely to become sick after being exposed to the flu virus! Shift work has also been shown to drastically increase the risk of cancer. Remember this: you might be a messy person in life and a horrible planner (no judgement, I am probably worse than you), but our body likes things organized and planned, so that it knows what to do and when. It wants to know what time we’re going to bed each night, and what time we wake up in the morning. It’s like having a psycho stalking you, except it’s actually doing this for your own good.

Sleep deprivation increases inflammation, increases the risk of chronic diseases, autoimmune diseases, cancer, arthritis, coronary heart disease, and also diabetes and obesity (you’ll understand in the next part why and how). As I mentioned, melatonin plays an important role in our immune function, and… we have 400 times more melatonin in our gut than in our brain! That’s because 80% of our serotonin (the “happy” hormone) is in the gut, and serotonin is a precursor to melatonin. Starting to connect the dots?

Quality over Quantity

Quantity of sleep is important. On average, and as an adult, we need between 7 to 9 hours per night. However, quality is crucial. In my opinion (I don’t really like to make assumptions, but this one is just basic common sense), I’d rather have a 6-hour night’s sleep, where I properly get about 20 to 25% of deep sleep, and 20 to 25% of REM sleep, than a 8-hour night’s sleep where I barely got any of both.

It’s important to get all the stages of sleep and in order to get them, the earlier we’re going to bed the better. The first half of the night (from 10pm to 2am) is usually when we get the most deep anabolic sleep, and REM usually in the second half of the night. If you track your sleep, you will notice those different stages. That’s why the amount of sleep you get is only an indicator. Someone going to bed at 2am and waking up at 10am won’t have the same restorative night than someone going to bed at 10pm and waking up at 6am.

Stay tuned, the second part of this article will cover a few things you might not know about the link between sleep and weight loss!

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