Sleep – mandatory, not a luxury

Sleep… it’s almost become a four letter word! 

Whenever life gets busy, the first casualty is sleep.  Just one more thing added to the day, just knock off 20 minutes in the morning… Just one more email to answer… skimp on the slumber.  Sleep deprivation is rampant in society – it’s getting to be our over-caffeinated new norm.

Yet according to Harvard Sleep expert and Psychiatrist, Dr Robert Stickgold “If you don’t sleep, you die.”

WHOOSH – that, is a sobering thought for sure!


The million dollar question, and like all important questions, the answer is… It depends.  It depends on your age – babies and teens need more sleep than adults.  As we move into the later decades of life, we start to need less sleep.  Fitness levels will impact the quality and the quantity of our sleep.  Underlying medical conditions can impact the quality and the quantity of sleep.  Stress… well seriously what about life doesn’t excess stress impact?

Overall, most sleep specialists recommend between 7 – 9 hours of restorative sleep.  Bit of caveat that ‘restorative’ qualifier.   You may well get 7 hours of shut eye, but the restorative bit is somehow lacking.


When we sleep our brain progress through 4 stages – very creatively named, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and stage 4.  The first three are non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and the 4th and deepest stage, is REM.   Stage 1 is the transition from awake to sleep; Stage 2 the heart rate slows and we start to relax; Stage 3, the muscles are relaxed and our breathing slows down; and Stage 4, the brain is very active, we dream, and except for the eyes which are rapidly moving, the body is essentially paralyzed (presumably to prevent us from acting out our dreams).

Sleep is by no means a passive activity for the brain.  When we sleep, it resets itself. Sleep is a crucial factor in learning and forming long term memories – something psychologists call long term potentiation.  So those all-nighters cramming during college/university were counter-productive.  Just imagine how well you could have done with adequate sleep?

Not only does the sleeping brain consolidate memories, it sorts out and makes sense of the day, processing the vast amounts of sensory input encountered throughout our waking hours.  It’s likely you have experienced what I call The 3am Epiphany, where you have wrestled with a problem all day without resolution, and then, at 3am POOF! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Problem solved.  That is your brilliant brain, doing it’s thing.

The brain is made up of neurons, the work horse of our thinking but those neurons are supported by scaffolding-like cells, called glial cells. These cells are also believed to have immuno-protective and nutritive roles, maintaining healthy brain function.

But recently, it has been discovered that glial cells also have a brain cleansing function that occurs while we sleep.  When we doze off, those supporting scaffolding cells shrink and widen the space around neurons (imagine wider corridors within our brain).  This additional space, allows our cerebrospinal fluid  to wash and slosh around the neurons, removing toxins that may have accumulated throughout the day.  It’s like running the dishwasher overnight – rinse off the residue.

This has huge implications for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.  Imagine if we could increase the wash and slosh cycle while we sleep and remove the damaging toxic bits that wreak havoc with our neurons.


From the above discussion it’s obvious what happens when we don’t sleep.  We don’t sort through the days’ sensory input, so we don’t reset the brain, we interfere with long term potentiation (memory formation) and we will not effectively wash and slosh our neurons.

Further it is well known that sleep deprivations contributes to weight gain and makes weight loss virtually impossible.   When you are tired, are you more likely to reach for a hefty bowl of steamed broccoli or a Mars bar?  The latter I am sure and that is because sleep deprivation increases our cravings for sugary carbohydrates and it does so by messing up our appetite regulation hormones.


We live in a society that devalues sleep to our own peril.   Value your sleep and learn to manage your circadian rhythm – your internal sleep – wake cycle.  Pay attention to and respect your sleep cycles.

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up every morning at the same time, including weekends.
  2. Prioritize your sleep.  Commit to a minimum of 7 hours nightly and on the occasion when you fall short, implement a ‘never miss twice’ rule.
  3. Plan to get 10 – 20 minutes of early morning sunshine – sip your coffee in a sunny window, or get outside for a brisk walk.  Sunlight helps to regulate melatonin our sleep time hormone.
  4. Dim down the bright lights and blue lights for the 1.5 – 2 hours before bed.  Blue light disrupts our melatonin regulation.
  5. Cozy up your sleep environment – cool but not cold, dark but not pitch black, quiet or with soft white noise preferably of nature sounds, get yourself a comfortable mattress – you won’t regret it!

The bottom line… If you are sleepy, sleep!

Treat yourself to amazing sleep.  It is free – and mandatory not a luxury.

Live Life, Love Life, Always
Dr Karen

  1. (Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):373-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1241224.)