Why Quality Sleep Solves All of the World’s Problems (seriously!)


Ok, maybe it doesn’t solve ALL problems, but quality sleep is vital for lasting health.

If you ever need a reminder of why sleep is so important, simply go back to the story of Randy Gardner. In 1964, 16-year-old Randy tried something different for his high school science fair project. He decided to stay awake for 11 straight days, and to everyone’s surprise he accomplished his goal, setting the world record (11 days, 24 min).  My daughter had a science fair project this year, simply testing different flavors of bubble gum to see which would last longest.  Maybe she needs to push herself more, but like Randy she also got an A.  What is wrong with this picture?

In his book “Brain Rules”, John Medina recounts the story of Randy and how he attracted the attention of famous scientist William Dement, who was given permission to study Randy while he was awake for that week and a half.  Here’s how Medina describes it:

What happened to Randy’s mind was extraordinary. To put it charitably, it started to malfunction. He became irritable, forgetful, nauseous, and to no one’s surprise, extremely tired. 5 days into the experiment, Randy began to suffer from what could pass for Alzheimer’s disease. He was actively hallucinating, disoriented, and paranoid. In the last 4 days of the experiment, he lost motor function. His speech slurred and fingers trembled. Curiously, on the last day of the experiment, he was able to beat Dement in pinball, doing so 100 consecutive times.

That’s a lot of trouble for an A on a science fair project.  I’ll stick with testing bubble gum.  By the way, after the experiment Randy slept for 14 hours and 40 minutes and seemed to fully recover.

Quality sleep and anxiety

I’ve spent nearly every working day talking about sleep hygiene in my work as a counselor and health coach.  I talk about it so much because it’s that important. If you don’t get quality sleep, you’ll have trouble with weight management, stress hormone levels rise, and you won’t have the recovery needed post-exercise.  But most notably, lack of quality sleep cripples thinking.  Sleep loss = mind loss, in about every way you measure thinking (attention, motor control, working memory, executive functioning, mood, logical reasoning ability, problem solving, etc.).  Pinball appears to be the exception.

Deep sleep, specifically stage 3 and 4 sleep, is the most important when it comes to our health.  In stage 4 sleep, our brain waves slow down, our immune system gets a boost, and learning is consolidated.  Chronic stress and anxiety can affect our deep sleep, often preventing people from getting to sleep or staying asleep.

When I work with someone with a lot of stress and anxiety, I focus on the natural ways to fine tune the body, like sleep hygiene, breathing and relaxation techniques, and exercise.  I usually encourage staying away from sleep aids, over-the-counter sleep pills, because they can lead to poor quality sleep, suppressing deep sleep stages.  And they can lead to greater dependence on the drug to get to sleep.

So tip one, go all natural.  Here’s some other sleep hygiene tips:

  Avoid alcohol.  I generally give this advice for anyone working on anxiety and stress.  At least avoid it at night, despite popular opinion that it helps sleep, it actually hinders it.  Alcohol is estimated to contribute to approximately 10 percent of all sleep maintenance problems.  You’ll wake up mid sleep cycle when the alcohol wears off (stress hormones increase when alcohol wears off).  Alcohol leads to more stress and anxiety because it lowers brain chemicals that help you calm down (serotonin).

  Lower your body temperature.  Your body clock, or circadian rhythm, is tied not just to light, but body temperature.  A warm body temp leads to light sleep, so at night body temp should be dropping.

  Know when to stop exercise.  I’ve advised people I work with to stop exercise at least a couple hours before bed.  That gives your heart rate and body temp time to drop.

  Practice relaxation throughout the day.  Practice relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness at least twice a day.

  Maintain a night time diet.  Know the foods that help you relax.  Foods with tryptophan, which converts to serotonin, help you relax.

  Balanced eating throughout the day.  In addition to balanced meals throughout the day, watch sugar and caffeine.  I’d suggest significantly cutting down on caffeine.  If you’re a coffee drinker, keep it to a couple cups in the morning, since caffeine can raise stress hormones and affect deep sleep, leading to increased anxiety.

  Adjust your thinking about sleep.  We can learn to identify maleadaptive thoughts about sleep and reframe them. If needed, talk with someone skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy for help (I know someone!).

How can you tell if you need to talk to your doctor?  You may have ongoing difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.  Remember, most people take anywhere from 15-20 minutes to fall asleep.  But if it regularly takes you a couple hours to fall asleep, you have insomnia, and I’d recommend talking to your doctor.

Hope this helps!

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