It’s not negotiable, I’m afraid. Your body won’t adapt, it will break down. And there are several ways this can happen. One of them, at least, is guaranteed.
Our bodies are designed for eight hours of sleep. That hasn’t changed just because we choose to try to extend our waking hours for work or pleasure. And the effects of trying to do that can be catastrophic. At best they are life-shortening by ten years or more, if we persist in deluding ourselves that we can continue to abuse ourselves with no ill effect.
There are many reasons for this that have been scientifically identified and which, when you think about it, make a lot of sense.
Our bodies are designed for 8 hours of sleep. That's not negotiable and your body won't adapt to shorter sleep.
The simple fact that daylight saving time has such a marked effect on our lives, should be indication enough that messing with our circadian rhythm is not a good idea. Firstly, it messes with our cardiovascular system. In the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, the incidence of heart attack increases by about 20%. Conversely, in the autumn when we get that wonderful extra hour, the incidence of heart attacks reduces by about the same amount.
A lot happens, when you sleep, that you are naturally unaware of. For instance, your immune system goes into overdrive, with what are called natural killer cells, or NK cells, patrolling the immune system and literally killing unwanted things like virally infected cells, and detecting and controlling early signs of cancer. Their activity has been shown in studies to be reduced by as much as 70% when sleep time is reduced to, say, four hours. This is one reason why the World Health Organization has classified shift work as a probable carcinogen, and why people who do shift work are more prone to bowel, prostate or breast cancer.
It has also been shown that your DNA is distorted by lack of sleep. Ironically, good genes that work with the immune system get switched off, and damaging gene activity is increased. Specifically, that increase is associated with tumours, inflammation and stress, which, in turn, leads back to cardiovascular problems.
Lack of sleep will mess up and shorten your life. What you can do about it.
Getting the requisite sleep generally gets more challenging as you get older. The double whammy is that lack of sleep is also associated with dementia and Alzheimers. But don’t begin to think that you can get around that one with sleeping pills. They don’t create the naturalistic sleep your body needs. Also, they often contain benzodiazepines, which act on your nerve endings and muscle fiber to artificially induce sleep and reduce anxiety. And, like so many artificial ‘aids’, they come with their own set of problems. Benzodiazepines keep working in your system for longer than you want them to, resulting in you feeling groggy when you want to be awake. And, if you take them for just 3 weeks, your body becomes dependent on them.
If you are one of those who burns the candle at both ends and you’re feeling a bit older and a bit more tired than you should, the old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ most likely applies to you. Lack of sleep can reduce the effectiveness of the hippocampus by around 40%. What this means is that your short-term memory is damaged and your ability to create long-term memories is drastically inhibited. Normally, the hippocampus effectively transfers new memories into long-term brain storage during the deepest stages of sleep. Loss of short-term memory is a classic indication of the onset of Alzheimers.
The short answer is simply to get more sleep. Eight hours, regular sleep and wake times and a cool bedroom.
A little understanding about your body’s stress response is also especially useful, so you can re-regulate, recover, and find a sustainable healthy balance, rather than taking a band-aid approach with coffee to stay awake and your favourite knock out solution - be it alcohol or pharmaceutical - to get some sleep.
Stress is the most common cause of problems with sleep. It is also common denominator in all diseases. And it’s not just stress in your head that we’re talking about here. There’s also chemical, microbial and physical stress in your body. When you are stressed, a cascade of hormones are released that orchestrate physiological changes such as increased heart rate, sweat etc. Chronic activation of this ancient ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism - designed to protect us in times of danger - results in increased levels of cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal glands. Needless to say, when you are in a state of stress, you are not able to relax and sleep.
Adaptogens reduce stress naturally by bringing down cortisol levels. Adaptogens are an elite class of herbs that increase resistance to all noxious stressors and facilitate the body’s adaptation to stress, making it stress-resistant and reducing stress-related damage while at the same time providing full spectrum balancing, as well as supportive and restorative properties.
Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a Vancouver-based Naturopathic Physician. She worked for over 27 years as a registered nurse and 22 years at BC's Children's Hospital, working in critical care with the province's sickest children. Her interests include research in circadian rhythm disruption, sports medicine and pediatrics. A competitive sports enthusiast, she has completed ultramarathons and marathons in all 7 continents. As a shift worker she has been using the ingredients of AWAKE and ASLEEP to boost her performance, endurance and overall health.
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