Why Sleep Deprivation Will Kill You + Tips To Sleep Better
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
*As always, scroll to the very bottom for a TLDR synopsis*
As a society, we REALLY need to move away from the notion that getting by on little sleep is something to brag about. It's really not, and glorifying it only makes our problem worse. Being chronically sleep deprived sets you up for all kinds of serious health concerns. It's simply not worth putting yourself at risk. Pull an all-nighter once? Ok fine. That's relatively easy to bounce back from, but chronic sleep deprivation is not something to take lightly, and the future sacrifice that you'll be paying is not worth it.
Now, there is a VERY UNCOMMON genetic variation that may allow some folks to tolerate a shorter sleep duration, remain on high alert throughout their waking hours, and show limited signs of inflammation (mutations to the p.Tyr362HisBHLHE41 gene). However, because this genetic variation is incredibly rare, most people that claim to get by on a few hours of sleep a night are:
a) not getting by just fine
b) sacrificing in other areas of their life.
When you don't get adequate sleep, you wreak havoc on your biology- only made worse when coupled with intense mental or physical activity. Simply stated, if you do not sleep, you will die more quickly. By not sleeping, you accelerate the aging-process immensely. When you forgo sleep, inflammation runs wild in your body, muscle & brain cells are not regenerating, you experience memory loss, your creativity dwindles, your hormones get wacked out of balance, your immune system takes a huge hit, autoimmune issues flare up, and more. There's a reason that death occurs within a few months in humans who suffer from fatal familia insomnia- a mutation that causes progressively worsening insomnia.
Sleep deprivation has been intensely studied in rats (for ethical reasons, this research has not been repeated on humans). In one study, researchers concluded that it took an average of three weeks to kill a rat via sleep deprivation. Other studies have shown considerable brain damage in sleep-deprived rats due to a severe lack of neurogenesis (regrowth of new brain neurons) from high levels of sleep-deprivation-induced cortisol. By looking at these studies and studying how sleep disorders affect human health, we can form a clear understanding of the extent to which sleep deprivation negatively impacts our health.
Sleep disorders contribute $16 billion to national health-care costs each year, due to their ability to cause heart disease and high blood pressure. This chunk of change doesn't include cost of accidents and productivity lost at work due to sleep deprivation- which alone adds about $150 billion each year.
Sleep deprivation speeds up the aging process by:
1) not allowing the brain to clean up cellular rubbish.
2) not allowing the body to repair itself.
Sleep is the primary anabolic state of the human body. When you sleep at night, increases in growth hormones and testosterone (critical hormones for muscle repair and neural growth) occur. The hormonal surges that you experience when you sleep are crucial for enhancing your waking hours. This is why it can take three times longer to repair muscle and recover from physical activity when you don't sleep. In addition to muscle repair, revitalization of adrenal glands, detoxification of the body via the liver, and restoration of the immune system all occur when you are sleeping.
Sleep is also necessary for the reorganization of neural networks in your brain. Even on your most humdrum mundane day, you are consciously and subconsciously learning new things, integrating new memories, acquiring new skills, meeting new people...all day long. After a day of this, your brain is stuffed with discrete pieces of information that need to be consolidated and integrated with previously learned information and memories. When you sleep, you process and absorb this information. In addition, toxins are flushed from the brain's lymphatic vessels (glymphatics). If this reorganization/consolidation of information and glymphatic drainage doesn't happen, your brain becomes a chaotic mess of cellular garbage and new information does not link to established memories. If new information does not link to established memories, it gets flushed out even though you don't actually "run out of space" to store new memories.
When all this happens, it affects nearly every other bodily function that is managed by your central nervous system and thus your body DOES NOT function properly. It looks like this:
-Problems with heat and/or cold regulation
-Immune function decline
-Increase in cortisol, catecholamines, & other stress hormones
-Imbalances in appetite and blood-sugar regulating hormones
-Increase in inflammatory hormones, like interleukin & C-reactive protein
-Reduction in cardio-respiratory capacity & strength output
-Interference in your body's recovery processes
-Increase in depression, confusion, anger, fatigue
-Reduced vitality & vigor
-Reduction in anabolic hormones & testosterone (also leading to a reduction in lean muscle mass)
-Increased likelihood of injury due to reduced cognitive function, proprioception, and neuromuscular changes
-Early onset of menopause due to low levels of DHEA & growth hormone to maintain the reproductive cycle
As your sleep deprivation progresses, you can experience malnutrition, hallucinations, autonomic nervous system malfunctions (like liver & kidney dysfunction & heart arrhythmias), alterations in cell-adhesion and cell-clotting abilities, skin lesions, and DNA damage. YOUR BODY FALLS APART. This is why it's near impossible to exercise or make it through a mentally or physically challenging day when you're sleep deprived; your body is full of inflammation, hormone imbalances, and blood sugar dysregulation. It is operating far below normal mental and physical capacity. The solution is NOT an easy day to rest or conserve energy. The solution is sleep. Unlike resting or conserving energy, the mechanics of neural repair require your brain to be cut off from environmental input (but not completely restricted because you need to be able to hear smoke alarms, a baby crying, someone breaking into your house...).
When you don't sleep enough, your body is constantly hormonally depleted and is consistently in a catabolic state getting progressively sicker. When you don't sleep, your brain gets smaller, your muscles get smaller, and your overall health declines.
Tips to Sleep Better
Fatty, cold water fish as a source of vitamin D & omega-3 to regulate serotonin (important for sleep regulation).
Low to moderate evening consumption of fruit- slow energy release from fructose & satiating effect from water + fiber, use tart cherries as a way to increase melatonin production.
High-glycemic index carbohydrates that spike blood sugar should be consumed at least 4hrs prior to bed, especially if you have trouble falling asleep quickly.
Do not have a large meal right before bed & take a short walk after dinner to help digestion & glycemic variability.
If you are dieting/are in an energy deficit, a higher protein intake throughout the day may help sleep.
If you frequently wake up during the night, you may need to consume a higher ratio of carbohydrates at dinner. Studies show that a higher-carbohydrate diet may shorten wake times- if you are very active during the day, having more carbohydrates at night may help you sleep more soundly.
Keep saturated fat intake low to moderate at dinner and total fat relatively low at your evening meal. Save the majority of your fat intake for earlier meals during the day and have the majority of your carbohydrates in your evening meal (a few hours before going to sleep).
*Please consult your physician/get blood work done before supplementing*
When levels of free tryptophan increase (from a) a decrease of the branched-chain amino acids or b) an increase in the availability of tryptophan), it crosses the blood-brain barrier & turns into 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine, a precursor to serotonin). 5-HT causes drowsiness & lethargy (it's a precursor to melatonin in the pineal gland).
Carbohydrates increase the plasma concentration of tryptophan- save the majority of your daily carbohydrate intake for the evening.
Vit. B3 (niacin) can be endogenously created from tryptophan. When more B3 is present, less tryptophan is needed to produce it, which allows for a greater amount of serotonin to by synthesized from tryptophan (important in sleep regulation).
Folate & vit. B6 (pyridoxine) are important to the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin.
Vit. B12 (cobalamin) is necessary for the conversion of melatonin. If you are a vegetarian, this is especially important because B12 is found only found in animals.
Research shows a strong relationship between zinc & melatonin. A deficiency in zinc can reduce melatonin levels.
Magnesium is important for enzyme N-acetyltransferase to convert 5-Hydroxytryptamine into N-Acetyl-5-Hydroxytryptamine, which is then converted into N-Acetyl-5-methoxy tryptamine aka melatonin.
The most bioavailable forms of magnesium are magnesium citrate, glycinate taurate, aspartate, & magnesium that is bound to the Krebs cycle (because it chelates- malate, succinate, fumarate). Magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate, and oxide are the most common & cheapest supplemental forms of magnesium, but they poorly absorbed and should be avoided.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that has a sedating effect. You must be in darkness for this to occur. Many folks supplement with magnesium, but should be cautioned because high doses (tens of milligrams) can cause intense nausea, headaches, & daytime drowisness. 3-12mg is a typical effect dose. However before supplementing with 3-12mg of melatonin, it is worth first trying to manipulate tryptophan levels (see above) or microdosing (0.3mg) with melatonin first.