As science reveals the countless hidden benefits of sleep–– a good night’s rest is making a comeback.
For the past 30 years, many high-performers have prided themselves on pushing the limits of human capacity. Whether in school, as an intern, or whilst climbing the ranks of career success, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” has become a common catchphrase for many living a high-stakes, low-sleep lifestyle.
However, recent data suggest that without proper “sleep hygiene,” death–– or at least a poor quality of life–– may come sooner than we’d think. In fact, it seems like the more we study sleep, the more we realize just how impactful it is on every aspect of our health and well-being.
This article highlights recent sleep studies underscoring the benefits of sleep. It also outlines a framework for doctors and practitioners to get healthful sleep in their own lives, while being advocates for their patients’ sleep hygiene as well.
Why Doctors Don’t Get Enough Sleep
Considering the fact that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep, combined with the correlation between “high-achievers” and insomnia, there’s reason to believe that most doctors could benefit from a healthier sleep schedule.
The truth is, not getting enough sleep is hardly their fault.
By the time they’re in medical school, doctors-to-be are often put on seemingly impossible schedules with huge course loads, combined with plenty of pressure to succeed. When in residence, their sleep can further suffer. With 40-80 hour work weeks expected (the official cap is now 80 hours/week), and shifts lasting up to 30 hours, sleep is certainly not prioritized on behalf of many doctors-in-training. And then when they do become doctors officially (or a practitioner of any kind), life can continue on this schedule.
Not only can a lack of sleep negatively impact doctors’ well-being and longevity, it also can impact their quality of work. A 2009 study found an increased rate of complications among surgeons who operate after sleeping less than six hours. Plus, a 2006 study found that extended hours awake at night caused a 300% increase in preventable mistakes that led to a patient’s death.
While similar high-stakes professions like pilots and truck drivers must adhere to strict standards around sleep–– doctors are often left out of this equation. Without proper restrictions built into the infrastructure, doctors are often expected to push their limits and work themselves into exhaustion.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Hopefully, at this point, you’re convinced that sleep should be a priority for everyone–– especially health professionals.
But while many of us “know” that sleep is important, we’re still not convinced enough to actually make a change in our behavior or lifestyle.
For those who still need convincing, here are a few fascinating benefits of sleep you really should know about.
A few fascinating health benefits of sleep:
- Sleep allows our brain to cleanse itself of the toxins built up the day before, which is suspected to lower the risk of dementia and boost mental clarity.
- Sleep boosts our immunity, whereas lack of sleep can leave us vulnerable and less likely to fight off viruses and disease.
- A regular, sufficient sleep schedule allows our body to fall into a natural circadian rhythm–– which is responsible for regulating hormones, mood, appetite, energy, and more.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), suggests that every organism in nature requires balance between work and rest. In order to function properly, each of our organs need downtime to cleanse and repair themselves. The study of circadian rhythms, aka chronobiology, tells us that many of our body’s essential restorative processes happen while we’re asleep. And in TCM, the “body clock” concept maintains that there are certain window periods when our body cleanses each of its organs. Without proper sleep, our body’s ability to conduct it’s “housekeeping duties” for each organ can become impaired. (For more on the “Chinese Body Clock” click here.)
So, when the body’s essential restorative processes are impaired, symptoms such as the following can occur:
- Anxiety and depression
- Impaired cognitive thinking, problem-solving, memory, and concentration, while moodiness and emotional volatility increase
- Weakened immunity (increasing likelihood of getting sick and decreasing likelihood of fighting off viruses and diseases)
- Increased blood pressure and incidence of heart disease
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Decreased libido
The science is clear–– having a healthy, consistent sleep pattern can positively influence mental, emotional, and physical health, whereas a lack of sleep can do the opposite.
How to sleep on a busy schedule
This is where the real challenge comes in.
How are we supposed to carve out time for sleep when our jobs, modern lifestyles, and technology seem to be designed to keep us awake for as many hours as possible?
In the same way that many of us have had to depart from a conventional food system featuring processed, fast and unhealthy food–– we might have to build similar counter-cultural muscles when it comes to cultivating healthy sleep patterns.
In American “Western,” culture, and especially in busy urban areas, people are often looking on a schedule of “go, go, go” and “do, do, do.” Many of us wake up, pound coffee, hit the gym, “crush the day,” come home and binge-watch Netflix (and then wonder why we can’t sleep at night).
If you consider all of the activities above–– they’re mostly cortisol-producing. While this type of energy has historically and biologically been really helpful for, say, outrunning wild boar, it usually was intended for short bursts of activity–– not a lifestyle. Another word for “cortisol-producing behaviors” is stress–– which directly impacts our ability to sleep.
So, how do we get off this cycle of sleeplessness, and into a more benevolent pattern of healthy sleep?
Here are a few tips to improve sleep habits:
1. Create an ideal sleep environment (Full list of tips here)
- No Screens for 1-2 hours before bed
- Make sure the temperature in your room is cool enough to support healthy sleep
- Make sure your bedroom is dark enough
- Find your ideal “sleep rhythm” Is it 9 pm-5 am? 10 pm-7 am? Everyone is different, but ideally, we should try to be asleep before 11 pm. If your sleep schedule is “off”, try going to bed earlier, and see if things improve.
2. Schedule in de-stressing activities
- Because our bodies are often wired to be in “fight or flight” mode, switching out of that mode requires effort–– it doesn’t just happen naturally. Activities like yoga, walking in nature, and meditation can allow your parasympathetic system to kick in— counterbalancing your normal stressful state with a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation.
3. Practice persistence and patience
- As an adult, chances are it’s taken you years to cultivate your current sleep pattern (or lack thereof), so it may take at least a year for your body to recalibrate into a healthier pattern. Don’t be discouraged by bouts of insomnia or an inability to sleep. Create a healthy sleep environment, and your body will eventually “remember” and respond positively.
It can be helpful to think about creating healthier sleep patterns as a process, not a program. There will be wins and losses, but ultimately, even a few minutes more of quality sleep each night is progress in the right direction. It can take your body rhythm some time to catch up with your new schedule.
Sharing the benefits of sleep with your patients
When you start to get more sleep, you’ll be a more effective advocate to your patients, family, and coworkers about the real health benefits of sleep.
Of course, “get some rest” is one of the last things many patients want to hear when they come to you with a problem. But if you can speak from a place of experience, and combine it with really good science (above), you’ll have a better chance of influencing them to make better decisions for themselves.
As a recap, here are a few key benefits of sleep that everyone should know:
- Sleep will help every condition
- It’s free and safe
- It’s powerful and effective in stabilizing mood, relieving anxiety and depression, losing weight, allowing our bodies to heal and repair themselves, and aids our ability to fight off sickness and disease
So, there you have it. Are you inspired to get a good night’s rest? The more we study, the more we realize that sleep is not merely “shutting our eyes”–– but rather, a symphony of processes that commence as soon as our bodies are in a sleeping state. As great as our waking hours may be, nobody should miss out on these free, accessible, and important health benefits of sleep, for ourselves and our patients’ sake.
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