Updated: Aug 29
My 21-year old dog has a pretty set schedule:
5:15am wake up (reluctantly), do business, go back to sleep
8am breakfast, mini-walk, do business #2, go back to sleep
Noon(ish): wake up, do some business, go back to sleep
5pm: wake up, mini-walk, do business, eat dinner, hang out
8:30pm: do business #2, take meds, go to sleep
I think he’s figured out the secret to longevity: first, keep it simple. Second, sleep. Sleep a lot.
Looking at his typical day, he gets about 18 hours of sleep. You may be tempted to say, “Well, yeah, he’s 21!” but really, he’s always been a passionate sleeper. Even in his younger days, I’d have to rouse him with “Hike!” or “Chicken!” to get him out of bed!
While he's always liked sleeping, he hasn’t always been a heavy sleeper. He was a stray – the shelter found him on the streets in Santa Fe – and when I first brought him home, he slept with his eyes open. Who knows how much good sleep he really got in the first years of his life, but that’s an important takeaway: sleep is (sort of) like a bank. If you didn’t get enough sleep one night, you can make up for it later. But as studies have shown, this works only to a certain extent. Once sleep deprivation enters the realm of “chronic,” bad things can happen to our health and our brains.
Not Getting Enough Sleep is Dangerous
Not getting enough quality sleep can be dangerous. It affects our present cognitive functions, such as working memory, attention, higher order executive function, and decision-making processes, as well as our long-term memory and long-term brain health.
According to the NIH (National Institute of Health), when sleep is deprived or restricted, “toxins can build up in the brain which affects cognitive abilities, behavior, judgment,” and the long-term health of the brain. When we sleep, the brain “cleans out” these toxins, but if we don’t get enough sleep, the brain cannot perform this function effectively. One of these toxins, beta-amyloid, is directly connected to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and neurodegeneration.
Poor sleep quality also affects us physically and physiologically. In the words of Dr. Eve Van Cauter, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, “sleep deprivation is the royal route to obesity.” It decreases insulin sensitivity, disrupts hormonal cycles, and depresses brain function (specifically, the willpower to resist sugary foods). A study from Stanford University revealed that sleep-deprived individuals had significantly decreased levels of the protein leptin. Leptin is responsible for regulating appetite. It is known as the satiety hormone, so decreased levels would inevitably lead to “false” feelings of hunger in people who are not getting enough sleep.
When it comes to years of sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality, the consequences can be severe and irreversible. A study reported by the World Health Organization tracked the results of 657 men over a 14-year period. Those who reported poor sleep quality were twice as likely to have a heart attack and 4 times more likely to have a stroke.
In his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson emphasizes the importance of sleep for long-term health: “The consequences of sleep deprivation aren’t pretty…Try immune system failure, diabetes, cancer, obesity, depression, and memory loss…Studies have shown that just one night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin resistant as a person with type 2 diabetes. This translates to aging faster, decreased libido, and storing more body fat…stretch that over weeks, months, even years, and you can see why lack of sleep can be such a huge problem.”
Sleep = Secret Sauce
Getting enough sleep is the secret sauce to longevity and living our best lives. Want to lose weight? Get sleep. Want to perform your best at work? Get sleep. Training for a marathon or ironman? Get sleep. Want to build muscle? Get sleep. Fight depression for good? Get sleep. Prevent Alzheimer’s? Get sleep. Live your best life? Get sleep.
When we’re sleeping, we’re in what’s called an anabolic (building up) state. When we’re awake, we’re in a catabolic (breaking down) state. Makes sense, right? When we’re awake, we’re breaking down our glycogen and fat stores for fuel.
Sleep is our chance to rebuild. During sleep, the growth and rejuvenation of the immune, skeletal, and muscular systems occur (and thus, keeps you youthful and energized!).
As stated earlier, during sleep, special brain cells act like “house cleaners.” During the day, our brain cells – billions of them – are workaholics. They are superstars and perform all sorts of amazing feats. But when they work, they produce a by-product of waste and toxins. These toxins, as mentioned earlier, can be very dangerous to long-term brain health if they aren’t cleaned out.
Thankfully, we have our “brain house cleaners” to clean out all the waste. While they can work during wakefulness, they are 10x more effective when we’re sleeping! Good sleep is vital for cleaning out the brain toxins.
Good sleep is also vital in hormone regulation. It helps regulate cortisol (the stress or “energy” hormone) and melatonin (the “chill out” hormone). When we get enough sleep, our cortisol levels decrease and we’re able to curb the secretion of cortisol. Cortisol isn’t bad during the day – in fact, it’s needed during the day to keep us going. Problems arise when we rely on cortisol at night, and we do this when we stay up late or if we don’t get enough sleep. More cortisol secretion means less melatonin secretion (the hormone responsible for calming us down).
The balance of cortisol and melatonin secretion is connected to what’s called our circadian rhythm. When we build good sleep habits (getting to bed at a reasonable hour and waking 8 hours later feeling well-rested) we align our circadian rhythms so that we feel tired at night (and throughout the night) and feel awake and well-rested during the day.
The FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) published extensive research showing that melatonin is very likely an anti-estrogen hormone. When melatonin does its thing, it helps keep estrogen levels low. High estrogen levels lead to breast cancer, uterine cancer, and fibroid tumors in women. In other words, getting good quality sleep at night for 7-8 hours could help prevent these types of cancers in women.
While my dog can schnooze peacefully throughout the night – not a worry in the world – I sometimes find myself waking up, thinking or worrying about something.
When this happens, I have a few tricks:
List the states in alphabetical order. Boy, I can’t believe this works so well! I’ve used this tactic at least 10x and I’ve never made it all the way through before falling back to sleep. It’s focused enough that my mind doesn’t wander and boring enough that I fall to sleep pretty quickly.
6-4-8 Count. Breathe in for 6 counts, hold breath for 4 counts, and breathe out for 8 counts. Counting helps my mind stay focused on the task and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the pioneer naturopaths, the 6-4-8 count is the ideal breath work for calming you down.
Read a book. I’ve learned that after 10 minutes, if I’m still not back to sleep, I need to stop my mind from thinking. I grab a dense book – something like Middlemarch or Warren Buffet’s The Intelligent Investor – and read until I start to feel tired again. It may take 2 minutes, it may take 10minutes, but it really helps me refocus my mind away from worrying.
For more, check out these 7 tips for sleeping smarter.
I’m all about exercising, but there’ve been times when I sacrifice exercise for sleep. There’ve been times when I sacrifice a fun event with a friend so that I can get to bed early. I like waking up early and getting my day going, but if it’s the weekend and I have the time, I’ll sleep in if I feel like I need it. With Pierre schnoozing heavily by my side, I sometimes pretend that I’m a dog, too, without a worry in the world and nothing on the agenda but sleeping.
Sleep Smarter. Stevenson, Shawn. ed. 2016
Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. Leaf, Caroline. ed. 2021.
The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. Eugene, Andy R. and Masiak, Jolanta. NIH: National Library of Medicine. 2015.