“I really don’t need much sleep.”
“I can’t sleep past 5am no matter what time I go to bed.”
“It takes me hours to get to sleep.”
“I often wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.”
“I’m always tired.”
Do any of these sound like you?
I bet, if you’re like 74% of Americans, you relate to at least one of these statements.
Why is no one talking about this dangerous epidemic sweeping the country… which is doing more damage to our brain cells than any other single factor in our daily lives?
Most doctors often don’t even ask the critical question, “How much sleep do you get?”
This should be one of the FIRST questions any doctor asks. Period.
Worst of all, most people never think to seek treatment for their sleeping problems, because somehow we’re under the impression that everyone has sleeping problems… It’s just a part of modern life, right?
The answer is NO. Or at least it should be.
This socially accepted killer is becoming such an issue, the National Center for Disease Control has declared insufficient sleep a national epidemic.
If you need more proof, here’s what the National Sleep Foundation found in a 2008 poll:
Sleep deprivation and interrupted sleep are not a part of “normal” life, and let me state this for the record:
Your brain will NOT function properly under extended periods of inadequate sleep.
If you’ve ever suffered through a sleepless night, you know how rough you feel the next day.
You’re emotional, groggy, and probably struggling with negative thoughts you can’t control. This is because your brain didn’t get the time it needed to do the repair work that keeps you sharp, energized—and alive.
When you sleep overnight, your brain rejuvenates and repairs. It is these periods of sustained rest, without any external stimulation, that allow your brain to give 100% focus on the re-growth and repair of damaged brain cells.
You can think of this as the time your brain “cleans the roads” of the normal cellular trash that accumulates through the day.
Just as street sweepers do their work at night, so does your amazing brain clean and repair itself when you sleep.
Sleep also consolidates and organizes your memories, taking the short-term memories you created during the day, and “formatting” them into sticky long-term memories you can recall for many years to come.
Here’s one of many supporting articles on the relationship between sleep and memory.
So when you don’t sleep properly, you literally—physically—wreak havoc on your brain.
And it makes sense.
Just imagine if those street sweepers ran out of time, and only got to clean half of the streets in a big city every night. Over time, the build-up of trash would get so bad that the streets would become cluttered with indistinguishable junk, and eventually they would become impassable.
These streets are your neural networks, a.k.a.: The information highways in your brain.
What you NEED to know about sleep deprivation is that decades of poor quality sleep—which many of us silently endure—will shrink your brain.
Without proper sleep, over time the hippocampus, or memory sector of your brain (I like to call it the “hippopotamus”) begins to physically shrink.
Blood vessels shrink.
Your cortex shrinks.
And those “information highways” in your brain you hear about… well, they erode like an ancient river through a dried up canyon.
The good news is: 99% of sleep deprivation cases are treatable.
But NOT with sleeping pills.
My own personal experience with sleeping pills made this very clear.
Let’s start off by saying the answer is NO.
Here’s my own story:
During on of the most stressful period of my life, I found it nearly impossible to fall asleep—and when I did finally sleep it was fleeting, as I tossed and turned all night.
When I couldn’t take the exhausting stress of sleep deprivation anymore, I resorted to over-the-counter sleeping pills. At first, these would completely knock me out for over 8 hours.
But the next morning, instead of feeling refreshed, I’d wake up feeling like my head was in a fog… like I was hung over from drinking (way, way) too much.
Every morning, it would take me a couple hours and at least two cups of coffee just to get moving… and even then, the best I could offer my business was half-capacity work, as my mind felt like it was moving through mud.
I was out cold for eight hours every night—but the truth is I wasn’t getting any quality, restorative sleep.
And, every night, I would go to bed feeling more exhausted than the day before.
You know that point beyond exhaustion where your brain is essentially on a lucid hyper-drive? Well, that was me every night…
Swallow the sleeping pill just to shut off my brain… And then wake up feeling even worse.
Around and around I went, night after night. It was a horrible losing battle:
I couldn’t “sleep” without the sleeping pill… yet I couldn’t get any quality sleep to actually function the next day, let alone feel like myself. You can imagine how this impacted my not just my work, but my relationships.
After 6 months on this exhausting merry-go-round, I knew something had to give.
I couldn’t keep up at work. I couldn’t focus for longer than five minutes without getting distracted… just thinking took enormous effort.
I was emotional, forgetful, distracted, agitated, anxious… and very, very grumpy.
It turns out that most over-the-counter sleeping pills are only supposed to be taken for 2 – 3 nights in a row; and if taken more often, they can actually cause insomnia.
Even worse, sleeping pills can quickly become addictive, and often come with a slew of dangerous side effects. Worse, they should NEVER be taken with alcohol, which is often what people use to help fall asleep.
I had no idea how much I was damaging my brain…
Then, I noticed this cycle of relying on sleeping pills—even though I wasn’t really feeling better—was increasing my tolerance for the sleeping pills.
I had to take more and more just to fall asleep, which made me even drowsier the next day.
Without realizing it, I was creating a deadly “sleep debt”, much like being overdrawn at a bank.
With such a build-up of damaged cells in need of repair, my body was demanding more sleep than the usual 8 – 9 hours to do its work.
No wonder I couldn’t keep up.
To help you fully understand the gravity of sleep, let’s look at what happens when you fall asleep:
When you wake up, the GABA levels in your brain are now low. GABA is a chemical that acts as a “stop” sign for your brain signals, which allows your mind to quiet s you can fall asleep.
Over the course of the day, your GABA levels regenerate and increase again, so by the time bedtime comes around, you have enough GABA in your brain to quiet all the brain signals, which allows you to fall asleep.
When you sleep, your brain goes through a series of regular sleep cycles. In a full, healthy sleep cycle, you spend about 70% of the night in a state called NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and the other 30% in a state called REM, or Rapid Eye Movement.
During sleep, both your heart rate and brain waves slow down, shifting from the short, spiky waves you experience during the day to long, flattened waves.
In your deepest NREM sleep, your blood pressure drops and your muscles relax. This is a very deep sleep stage, from which it can be very difficult to wake.
REM, on the other hand, is a very active period of sleep, when your brain has shorter, choppier brain waves.
This is when you dream.
As morning approaches and you’re ready to wake up, your body produces more of the stress chemical cortisol, to make you alert and ready for the day.
Most adults need an average of 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night.
The average American gets 6.
And, we’re sleeping an estimated 20% less than we did just a 100 years ago.
Now one thing I will mention:
About 5% of the population has a gene mutation, which allows them to function well on 5 – 6 hours of sleep a night. If you honestly believe this might be you, I encourage you to get tested.
If you’re one of the remaining 95% of us and you’re still only getting 5 – 6 hours of sleep, well… trust me:
You’re in trouble.
Animals will simply fall asleep when their bodies need it. Humans however, have the capacity to push through on too little sleep… but we’re only meant to do this once in a while, generally in life or death situations.
If you’re noticing your memory seems to be getting weaker, time to look at your sleep patterns.
“Imaging and behavioral studies continue to show the critical role sleep plays in learning and memory. Researchers believe that sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:
Two of the most common sleep disorders today are Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Insomnia—and both deliver huge brain shrinking damage.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – Signs and Symptoms
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is when the airflow is blocked and you stop breathing for a period of time during the night. This non-breathing period can last from a few seconds to as long as 5 minutes… and the whole time your brain is starving for oxygen.
Have you ever woke up gasping for air, or seen your partner do this in the night? If so, you’re dealing with OSA, and need to get that addressed.
Another sign of OSA is heavy snoring, often followed by a few moments of quiet and then a gasping for air. Once again, this indicates periods when you’re not breathing.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea is one the most documented brain shrinking illnesses today, and is suspected to be connected to memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
People with OSA are chronically tired, foggy, anxious and low on “brain power”. They suffer from memory lapses, are often slightly (or severely) depressed.
In one study, 91% of people who suffered from a severe stroke also had OSA.
Yet as many as 80% of OSA sufferers today remain undiagnosed.
Why? Because most people don’t seek treatment for sleep.
Do You Have Sleep Apnea?
If you’re more than a few pounds overweight, you have a seriously increased risk of suffering from OSA.
Other things that increase your risk include a large neck size, as well as smoking.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea can be identified with a sleep study, to determine if you need treatment. 5 episodes is considered acceptable, while 15+ episodes considered critical to your health.
Here’s a mnemonic to help you determine if you need to seek treatment.
Ask yourself the questions of: STOP BANG
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be at risk for OSA and need to get checked out.
Now let’s look at insomnia.
“I don’t have insomnia, I just can’t sleep more than 6 hours.”
“I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. “
These are the first things most people tell me about their sleep.
These are SERIOUS problems.
Dr. Fotuhi talks about a patient name Greg, a high-powered attorney who regularly only slept four hours a night.
“It’s not a problem”, Greg would say.
But the truth emerged: This was a HUGE problem.
What they found was that Greg’s memory had started to slip. Engrossed in work, he started forgetting life plans like a dinner date with his wife.
He started doing things like suddenly remembering he’d left his coffee cup on the roof of the car… after he just pulled on the freeway.
He thought, “It can happen to anyone.” But it was beginning to happen a lot, and in more dangerous ways.
Insomnia becomes an issue when you either don’t get enough sleep, or your sleep is regularly interrupted.
If you’ve been experiencing this for more than one week, you have insomnia.
Stress, depression, medications, caffeine, alcohol, chronic pain, and inadequate nutrition can all cause insomnia.
And, insomnia is also one of the main causes of depression.
The common effect among all of these is the shrinking of your brain.
Fewer than 6 hours a night of sleep is commonly associated with hypertension, chronic pain, and inflammation, all of which affect the brain.
Insomnia also increases your risk of stroke by 51%.
No other way to put it: This is HUGE!
There is also a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain.
When you think about it, this makes sense.
If you’re tired, just as when you’re drunk, you only have 20 – 30% of your normal “fighting strength” willpower. Your body senses it’s low on energy and cravings start to form. You need rest… or is it food?
When you’re running on fumes, you can’t make clear decisions.
And you certainly can’t say no to that doughnut. Your body needs energy, right?
One study showed that just a single night of inadequate sleep consistently resulted in increased food cravings the next day.
In fact, sleep deprivation is so critical that Dr. Fotuhi recommends OSA and insomnia screenings for everyone over the age of 50 who snores.
He believes these screenings are MORE important that getting a colonoscopy or a mammogram at this age.
So, if you think you might be suffering from sleep deprivation (and I suspect you wouldn’t still be reading if you didn’t), you need to make some changes to start repairing the damage you’re doing—and have done—to your brain.
That said, I have good news for you:
Nearly all sleep disorders can be treated, and the damages to your brain ARE reversible.
Now if my previous 5 Pillars of Brain Health haven’t convinced you of the brain’s ability to re-grow at any age, here’s more proof:
One study on OSA conducted by an Italian research team showed that just after 3 months of treatment, the patients’ FMRI scans revealed that their brains now looked very similar to non-OSA patients.
This reason this is significant, is because at the beginning of the research, these same patients brains were as much as 18% smaller.
That’s 18% brain growth in just 3 months of quality sleep!
The first thing is to look at your lifestyle:
Most of all, remember:
Whatever your source of insomnia might be or however long it’s been going on, you can start repairing and re-growing your brain as soon as you start getting a good night’s sleep.
The next step is to start healthy sleep habits.
Two things shown to have a HUGE impact on sleep quality are regular exercise and mediation. (Here’s a good article on how meditation affects your brain.)
Finally, it’s important to have a good bedtime routine:
Don’t get discouraged, and give yourself time.
Reducing a sleep deficit can take 4 – 6 weeks before your brain is able to achieve full affects and form new sleeping habits.
And trust me: The results are real, and they are worth it.
It’s not the time you have to live, it is the energy you put into your time that counts.
Good sleep = Great energy = Extraordinary life.
All the best,