I hope you all woke up and felt bright and breezy this morning. If not, then this blog may be for you.
As many of you know, I originally came to meditation because my insomnia was ruining my life. Fortunately for me, I finally found a solution after 2-3 years of trying, and within two weeks of starting my meditation journey, it was mostly sorted, and within two years, I never had an issue again.
Since this time, the intensity of life has increased, and the sheer amount of screen time we engage in is putting considerable pressure on our nervous systems, as is the amount of electromagnetic radiation that is bombarding our bodies night and day in service of all these devices we are now surrounded with.
I’ve also learned a lot along the way about what works and what doesn’t. What’s important and what is irrelevant, and so I wanted to take the time while I have a bit more bandwidth to curate my thoughts as best I can and give you the lowdown on everything you need to know to enhance your sleep life to the point whereby you are waking up feeling refreshed each and every day.
Naturally, in order to do it justice, it will require a pretty lengthy deep dive, so get ready to invest a little bit of time, for a great deal of nocturnal joy…and to make it easier on you all, I’m going to break this down into 3 separate posts to be spread over the next couple of weeks so as not to overwhelm you with all the knowledge I’ve accumulated on the subject over the past 15 years.
Aside from the old adage that we need 8 hours a night, we don’t tend to give that much thought to getting the most from our sleep, which is craziness when you delve into just how much valuable information there currently is about getting your sleep right. About focusing on quality as much as quantity. Because when you have both those things together, you have a high probability of a happy, healthy life, especially when combined with the brilliance of Beeja Meditation.
To understand how and why this is important, it is crucial to understand that there are 5 phases of the sleep cycle; REM sleep, shallow phases 1 and 2, and deep phases 3 and 4. Each varies in depth, length and time of occurrence:
Stage 1 This is the lightest phase of sleep. This stage of alpha wave sleep usually occurs in that transition between sleep and wakefulness and can also kick in during the transition from deep sleep to REM. This particular alpha state is where you feel half awake, half asleep, and possibly very lucid and creatively tuned in.
Stage 2 During this stage, theta activity occurs, and sleepers become gradually harder to awaken. The alpha waves of the previous stage are now being interrupted by abrupt activity. This stage helps to integrate motor function to ensure physical activity is optimised during the day.
Stages 3 & 4 These stages are called slow-wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep. They can also be known as Delta Sleep because of the slower frequency of waves that tend to occur during this phase. Slow-wave sleep is thought to be the most restful form of sleep; the phase which most relieves feelings of tiredness, improves memory function, and restores the body.
When you’re in this state, it is difficult to awaken you, even with noises in excess of 100 decibels. If you’re one of those people, like I used to be, whereby that seems impossible, it’s probably because you spend most of your night hypervigilantly clinging to phases 1 and 2, and not letting yourself surrender into slow wave sleep because your system is convinced you’re under threat.
Now it’s interesting for me to write this, because I’m now remembering that my insomnia began to be a feature after a wild 150mph car crash that brought me to within a whisker of death and totally changed my psyche. My system was much more hypervigilant after this, and when I then broke my circadian rhythms with even more intense partying than I had been accustomed to, the whole thing fell apart, and any little bit of noise or light would keep me awake. That’s a classic description of a sleep life with minimal Slow Wave Sleep.
REM. ‘Rapid eye movement’ sleep tends to first occur approximately ninety minutes after falling asleep and tends to cycle back in every ninety minutes, elongating in length as the night rolls on (provided there aren’t disruptive influences in our system as we will discuss).
This is the stage of sleep associated with the dream state and helps us to process emotional information. It is very different physiologically from the other stages of sleep. EEG readings actually resemble wakefulness more than the other stages of sleep. However, the skeletal muscles lack any form of tone or movement, supposedly to protect us from injuring ourselves during the intense activity of this stage. Our breath is more erratic and irregular. Our heart rate often increases.
This stage of sleep is so important that even the hyper adaptive brain keeps track of how much REM it has lost and always seeks to fulfil any overdue quotas as best it can, because without that, it just cannot function properly. You therefore get a compensatory REM sleep rebound which catalyses some crazy dream states!
And if you don’t catch up, eventually it will bleed into the waking state, and you experience delirium.
That’s how important this sh*t is. Your brain will go to extreme lengths to get this experience, by hook or by crook. It obviously deems it a priority above almost all else, so messing with it is ridiculously unwise.
Each of the different sleep phases consolidates various different items of information. To be a fully functional healthy human being, it’s essential that we experience them all.
That said, the most valuable ones of those are widely considered to be REM sleep and the Slow Wave phases 3 and 4. And guess which ones we’re not getting enough of? That’s right, it’s all the important ones. Of course it may be that if we are undercooked on 1 and 2, that would be problematic, but unless you’re a rare anomaly, that’s unlikely to be your issue.
The Things Sleep Does For Us
Sleep affects pretty much every aspect of our brain function. At the cognitive level, it helps us process information, filing it away and enabling us to remember that information in an ordered way.
Research suggests that sleep also aids memory function by converting short-term memories into long-term memories, as well as erasing unneeded information that might otherwise clutter the nervous system.
It’s also absolutely superb for improving our creativity and problem solving capability, because dreaming is an opportunity for our brain to role play many more possibilities at 20x speed compared with the waking state, allowing us to consider a wide variety of scenarios that wouldn’t be accessible to us in the more bandwidth filled waking state, which is one of the reasons why sleeping on a problem is such a good idea.
By helping to order the information received by our brain the day before, and by enhancing the neuroplastic development of our noggin, it also creates the bandwidth needed to improve our decision making. And as we will see, it also helps our emotional brain processing, thus giving us the wherewithal to then execute that decision with greater courage and conviction.
When we’re feeling fresh, there is also a corresponding uplift in alertness, and focus.
Emotional Processing and Regulation
Similarly, sleep is necessary for emotional health. During sleep, brain activity increases in areas that regulate emotion, thereby supporting not only healthy brain function but also emotional stability.
Areas of the brain in which sleep increases activity include our old friend the amygdala as well as important bits of kit such as the striatum, hippocampus, insula and medial prefrontal cortex. When this gets to go through a proper spin cycle at night, we work through our emotional experiences more comprehensively and we are better able to resolve them. Not achieving sufficient sleep quality will therefore make it more challenging for us to emotionally let go, and to achieve emotional stability.
Another benefit is that the amygdala, which is in charge of the fear response, is capable of a more adaptive response when you’ve had a good sleep. Unfortunately the more sleep-deprived you are, the more your amygdala is likely to overreact to minor irritants and treat them more like major threats.
This emotional regulation also enables better judgement. We can approach the problem rationally and responsively rather than reactively when the limbic brain has had sufficient rest time to get itself in good order.
Ultimately, research shows that sleep and mental health are intertwined. On the one hand, sleep disturbances can contribute to the onset and progression of mental health issues, but on the other hand, mental health issues can also contribute to sleep disturbances. It’s a vicious cycle that we are best avoiding wherever we can. Meditation of course offers exactly that kind of circuit breaker, and a rounding retreat takes that to a whole new level. There will of course be lots of other tips towards the end of this post too.
The brain is incredibly energy intensive. While only representing 3% of our body mass, the brain uses approximately 25% of our daily energy supplies. It’s vital for healthy doses of Slow-Wave Sleep to replenish the brain’s lost energy, otherwise we are left drained and foggy-brained.
It’s a similar story at the bodily level. We regulate our insulin and glucose levels at night, and this helps to ensure we have a steady stream of energy the following day. Without it, that familiar feeling of exhaustion takes over and it just feels like the day is dragging and we need a fix of caffeine or adrenaline to get us through. However, that is a very slippery slope as we will see…
Cellular Restoration & Motor Coordination
There is hugely significant cellular regeneration taking place at night, especially when our sleep is deep. This assists with muscle repair, protein synthesis and tissue growth.
It also enables your body to enhance its neuromuscular integration so that any new physical skills become embedded into our programming, and also enables us to stay coordinated, even when there is an injury that changes the way we might otherwise ambulate through life.
Good sleep is critical to a healthy and strong immune system. Research shows that sleep deprivation (anything less than 6 hours) can inhibit the immune response and make the body susceptible to pathogens.
For example, when you sleep, your body makes cytokines, which are proteins that fight infection and inflammation. It also produces crucial antibodies and immune cells. Together, these molecules prevent sickness by destroying harmful germs.
That’s why sleep is so important when you’re sick or stressed. During these times, the body needs even more immune cells and proteins, which is why surrendering into a complete rest state assists this process (NB looking at your phone all day whilst vegetating on the sofa/in bed definitely does not constitute rest for your brain!).
When you sleep well, your blood pressure goes down. Disturbed sleep on the other hand tends to result in higher blood pressure for a longer duration of the night, and given that that is the biggest killer in the world today, it’s not to be taken lightly. Nor the fact that high blood pressure goes hand in hand with a propensity towards anger, irritability and impatience.
Dynamically, poor sleep increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
When you sleep, your brain’s glymphatic (waste clearance) system eliminates lots of smeggy waste from the central nervous system. It removes toxic byproducts from your brain, which accumulate throughout the day. This enables your brain to function well when you wake up.
In addition, during sound sleep, we turn off the production of the stress steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids. This is one of the reasons why not getting enough sleep can make us more susceptible to feeling stressed. We end up with an excess of steroid hormones floating around our system. Growth and sex hormone production also diminish when we lose sleep.
Less sleep also leads to build up of toxic amyloid, which is implicated as a prime cause of Alzheimer’s, so it’s important not to overlook the importance of night-time detoxification.
Poor sleep is also linked to a higher incidence of obesity, and much of the discussions of how and why this takes place centre on the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin.
We tend to under-secrete leptin – an appetite suppressant – when we don’t get sufficient sleep, and we all know that feeling after a poor night’s sleep where we more vociferously want and need food.
This is exacerbated by the hunger hormone ghrelin, which we produce more of when we don’t sleep, thus adding to the sense of a more insatiable appetite.
Combined, we will likely consume 200-300 more calories as a result of insufficient sleep, compared with when we get a good night’s rest. That’s 70,000 calories a year, which will likely result in 10-15 lb of extra padding per year. This figure increases to 450 calories of extra consumption if we’re completely sleep deprived, albeit I would argue our body will be more active so it may balance itself out. Indeed, people who don’t sleep because of massively overactive adrenals may well lose weight, but one things for sure, the health outcomes are never healthy.
I would also hypothesise that the quality of what we eat reduces significantly when we are under-slept. Instead of the healthy option, we are much more likely to go for that fatty, sugary option. In the interests of being accurate, I’ve just checked online and that’s actually been validated through research, albeit most of us experientially know the truth of that without the need for statistical backing!
Neurochemical and Hormonal Balance
In addition to the aforementioned regulation of stress, growth, hunger, sex hormones, and insulin regulation, there is a plethora of other activity going on at the neurochemical level.
There are so many hormones, peptides and neurotransmitters, it would be a tiresome and overly scientific exercise to name how their profiles are enhanced by sleep, so let’s just focus on arguably the most important of all of them – melatonin.
Melatonin, often referred to as the king of hormones, due to its lead role in the production of all other hormones is produced by the pineal gland and then released into the bloodstream as a response to darkness. It thus helps with the timing and regulation of your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and particularly with the synchronisation of the sleep-wake cycle with the rhythms of night and day. In doing so, it facilitates the initiation of sleep, the highly ordered production of hormones that are all linked into the circadian rhythm, as well as promoting consistent, quality rest.
Whilst darkness prompts melatonin production, light causes that production to stop, which means that our relationship with and exposure to light is critically important to our overall health and wellbeing. Hence why there is a wisdom imperative to consider how we can optimise this relationship, as it underpins almost every aspect of our life.
There is also one other hormone which I would like to give a nod to, which is GABA, because of its critical role in anxiety, which is now one of the biggest health disorders in the world. Firstly, this chemical messenger slows down your brain by blocking specific signals in your central nervous system, resulting in a soothing, calming effect. As such, it has long been regarded as central to the regulation of anxiety (note to self, let’s do a study on the impact of Beeja meditation on GABA levels).
A lack of GABA is also associated with problems carrying out normal mental functions, otherwise known as cognitive deficits. This is most clearly and painfully seen in people who have schizophrenia, increasing their struggles with clear thinking and socially integrated behaviour.
Although somewhat of a synthesis of some of the aforementioned points, it’s important to emphasise just how crucial good sleep is for overall performance levels. In REM sleep, certain areas of the brain such as motor, visual, and emotional all increase in activity by something in the order of 30%. Whereas other parts become functionally less active, such as the prefrontal cortex – which we teach you about in our beginners course. As a result of this essential neurological conductor being inhibited, all the other brain parts can run wild, which is why so much of what we subjectively experience is so utterly illogical and random.
With the brain processing information it has learned the previous day at 20x speed, it enables so much functional enhancement that physical and cognitive performance levels are significantly improved across the board.
At the physical level, it’s not just practise which is important. It’s actually sleeping on it and integrating the memory of it which adds a 20-30% performance improvement the next day, and this is mirrored at the level whereby you have greater focus and concentration, greater resilience, reduced performance anxiety. So whether it’s for business, sport, or any other field where performance is key, good sleep protocols (and meditation) are arguably the most important variables you can harness to optimise your performance levels. Without decent sleep, we can’t hope to function at our optimum capacity, even though research suggests we somehow convince ourselves that we are performing just as well, it’s simply not true.
To illustrate this point, it is estimated that a lack of sleep costs the global economy 2% of GDP. That’s $1.7trn a year!
So it’s not just about improving your hormonal profile and your mental health, getting high quality sleep (and meditation) is also about achieving peak performance.
This is a great example of why treating your prefrontal cortex (PFC) well is such a good idea, because it helps to bring order to your brain, as well as all of the specific qualities it mediates.
That’s why meditation is such a boon for your brain, because it helps offer both emotional processing, and add support and development of your PFC.
The Importance of Healthy Sleep Patterns
For most of human history, we were getting approximately nine hours of sleep a night, and that seems to be what mother nature settled on as our most ideal level of rest once we attained maturity (more is needed when we’re young, less when you’re old).
However, since the invention of the lightbulb, our sleep patterns have changed for the first time in our 3.8m years of existence, and we’ve never really gotten to grips with this imbalanced dynamic.
In the 120 years since the lightbulb began replacing lamplight, we’ve not only found our sleep quality reducing precipitously, but we’ve also reduced our sleep quantity by 20%. The result of this unwitting insanity is that we’re massively short changing ourselves of nocturnal restoration whilst simultaneously putting ourselves under more stress and strain than ever before. It’s no wonder there are so many mental health issues in the world today.
So let’s start by looking at the consequences of reduced sleep quantity, which has been extensively researched.
Firstly, it has a massively significant impact on our neurochemistry.
For example, I just talked about the usefulness of GABA in helping us feel calm and clear. Unfortunately, sleeping less than seven hours per night disrupts our production of this critical neurotransmitter and alters the content of the GABA, resulting in behavioural alterations and oxidative stress
Secondly, all those rather unintelligent city slickers who somehow think it’s big and clever and macho to live off only six hours a night are totally shooting themselves in the foot. I doubt they realise that their testosterone profile will soon mimic that of a man ten years their senior, thus impacting their virility, muscle strength, energy levels, muscle mass, fertility, erectile function, hair growth (or lack thereof!), and bone mass. It can even lead to the growth of some nice juicy moobs!
It will also make you emotional, or as science calls it, ‘affectively labile’, whereby your emotions not only become unnecessarily strong, but also highly variable.
Indeed, intense levels of sleep deprivation will make you first paranoid, then delusional and eventually psychotic. It raises the wider question that if all of us are mildly sleep deprived (which we are), are we actually all experiencing a collective psychosis? It sounds like an absurd notion on first pass, but I’m not so sure. I’ve thought for some time that that is the only explanation for some of the collective choices we make, and perhaps this helps explain that.
Additionally, if you sleep six hours or less, you will become exhausted 30% quicker the next day. So if you or your team is worked to the bone, you/they are simply not going to be as effective. You/they are just going to be busy.
From a leadership capacity, employees have been shown to deem a sleep deprived leader/boss far less capable and charismatic than a boss whose data suggests they are sleeping well. Even though the employees are blind to the boss’s sleep status, it’s simply so evident to them in terms of the boss’s productivity, decision making, interpersonal skills, and overall demeanour.
So the age old martyrdom of the heroic employee/boss working themselves into the ground for the sake of the collective endeavour often proves to be thoroughly counterproductive, because what you gain in ground out hours, you lose in actual productivity and effective leadership/team play.
And so for those wishing to get a promotion, perhaps there’s some sobering realisations here for you too.
As for your favourite sports team, if they’re playing in a big cup final the next day, one of the most unscrupulous things you could do to aid your team’s chances of winning would be to create noise and disturbance outside the opposing team’s hotel the night before, because that 30% loss in performance is likely to prove absolutely pivotal, even if it is a complete abdication of sporting fairness and integrity.
When you think that elite sport and high level business is about marginal gains, helping your team achieve good quality rest at night is likely to outweigh all of the other measures you could take, aside from possibly teaching them meditation.
Obviously for all us meditators, twice a day practice tends to shorten the time it takes to initiate sleep as well as substantially increase sleep quality as Beeja’s 2017 Phase 1 trials highlighted. Meditation also enhances restfulness the next day, even when external factors impinge on your sleep, by compensating for the lack of sleep by giving you ep hits of rest.
And of course, if there’s a high pressure event the next day, it will help remove a lot of the performance anxiety that you or your team might otherwise feel.
But it’s not just the meditation, there are other considerations worth bearing in mind if you wish to get the most from your slumbers, hence why I am writing this epic essay when I could be lying on a lovely beach!
To illustrate just how much your body appreciates and responds to getting sufficient sleep, when the clocks change in March and we lose an hour’s sleep, there’s a 24% rise in heart attacks. And when we gain the extra hour in October, they decrease by 21%. This is not trivial !!
Another stunning insight is that if you only get 6 hours of sleep for 7 straight nights versus when you get 8 hours a night, just that one week of poor sleep will distort the activity of approximately 711 genes!!!
This amazing research revealed that half of these genes increased in activity, many of whom were linked to inflammation and the creation of tumours. The other half decreased activation, a lot of them related to immune function. So reduced sleep, even on a short term 7 day basis, will create immunosuppression as well as numerous other significant disruptions to biological and neurological function.
Ongoing reduced sleep also significantly increases the likelihood of early death, so once again, people who think they’re saving time by compromising their slumbers for the sake of (say) work, are ultimately costing themselves years, if not decades in lost life! So when people say ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, I’m not sure they realise just how prescient that statement may end up becoming!
Regular reduced sleep is also one of the biggest predictors of degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. Is it to do with the amyloids mentioned earlier? Who knows. But given the ubiquity of this condition, it’s probably worth bearing in mind.
Ditto the fact that a lack of sleep is linked to breast, prostate and bowel cancer.
Another interesting fact is that even just being awake 20 hours impairs you physically and cognitively to a level where you are equivalent to being legally drunk. Now I was aware it was detrimental, but I had no idea it was that bad.
Indeed, drowsy driving causes more road deaths than alcohol and drugs combined.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that sleep deficiency leads you to having micro-sleeps, where your eyelids don’t fully close, but you disappear into a ‘nano-nap’. During that time, you will be unresponsive to potentially threatening stimuli. If you happen to be in control of a high velocity vehicle at this time, then you and it will be totally out of control at that point.
As I write this, I must admit I’ve been there many times myself. The worst was a trip back from the North West when I was 17, and I reckon I had 500 micro-sleeps on the way home, and had to slap myself repeatedly to stay awake. It was fecking dangerous.
But what about all those other times when it was less pronounced? It’s funny how we demonise drink driving and yet we’re somewhat immune to the pitfalls of drowsy driving. It’s almost as if we don’t want to admit our unsuitability for something many of us habitually engage in.
And actually, one could argue it’s even more irresponsible than drink driving, because when you’re drunk, the issue is simply late reactions, whereas with this, there are simply no reactions.
I’d be curious to know where the law stands on this, because there may well be a deadly asymmetry brought about by our cultural acceptance of collective tiredness.
Drowsy driving is also the biggest killer of young people, and surely we as a society have a responsibility to help support our young as best as possible and alter cultural norms if we have to?
For example, although school start times in the UK are quite reasonable, in other countries they are less bio-friendly. In the US for example, the average start time is 8am. Given that kids have to travel to school, sometimes from quite far, they’re leaving the house quite early, which means waking up before their teenage/prepubescent bodies are ready. To hammer the importance of this point home, a school in Wyoming actually changed their start times from 7:35 to 8:35 and it resulted in a 70% reduction in car crashes the following year!
But please remember, this is not only a good idea for the preservation of life, it’s also critical for the mental, emotional, academic and creative development of our young.
For example, a US study measured the improvement in SAT scores in kids who got an extra hour of sleep in the morning and that led to a 17% increase in average scores!
And given how important it is for the brain to rest properly, if we are going to have early start times, then at least let’s have people meditating first to shake off the drowsiness. Of course ideally we do both, because it doesn’t really matter whether your objective is health, happiness, or performance, the combination of adequate rest and meditation is so value added, it literally makes no sense not to take advantage of such sensational symbiosis.
Interestingly, a lot of the symptoms of sleep deprivation also suggest ADHD. The sad fact of the matter is that many children who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD are either sleep deprived, or have a respiratory blockage that disrupts their sleep. So banging them full of amphetamine is really not such a clever idea, even if it does trigger neurochemicals that they may under-secrete when they genuinely have the condition. When you get the sleep sorted, the ADHD symptoms disappear as well, and this is far more holistically beneficial for them than stuffing them with amphetamine.
Even those who have a genuine case of it, are taking stimulants as medication, which exacerbates the situation via reduced sleep quality, rather than helping it holistically.
Indeed, one could actually make an argument to say that good quality sleep is one the greatest medicines on earth.
And yet in the entire 7 years of medical training for doctors, they get two hours of training on the dynamics of sleep. What a missed opportunity!
It’s also highly unfortunate that many medical professionals are sleep deprived, especially those in A&E, because they are 460% more likely to make diagnostic errors when this is the case. I would suggest they take some of their own medicine, but of course, helping to facilitate high grade sleep isn’t a major part of their medicinal repertoire so it would arguably fall on deaf ears.
And if you are having elective surgery, it is worth asking your surgeon how much sleep they’ve had in the last 24 hours. If it’s less than 6 hours, there’s a 170% increased probability of a major surgical error. In which case, you may wish to consider doing a Dionne Warwick and telling them to ‘Walk On By’.
And if you feel I’m overstepping my remit, first of all, they will be as impaired (if not more so), than if they were drunk. And apparently, 1 in 6 resident doctors make a serious error because of sleep deprivation, and 1 in 20 will cause accidental death because of it!
And in neonatal intensive care units, babies who are exposed to regular light rhythms leave the hospital an average of 5 weeks quicker than babies whose restfulness is being disturbed by unintelligent lighting.
It doesn’t need fancy equipment, patented formulas, or anything too sophisticated. It’s a free resource that anyone with adequate shelter should be able to manage.
It begs the question, how can humans be so blind to its importance when it’s such a big part of our lives? It’s because we neglect simple fixes in favour of complex ones. It’s because we analyse surface level symptoms rather than interdependent systems. It’s because we’re so obsessed with the trappings of material success, that we sacrifice the non material in order to achieve more outward success.
It doesn’t help that someone who is sleep deprived is also a useless judge of whether it’s negatively affecting them or not. You simply have no objectivity.
When you do have healthy amounts of objectivity, the conclusion is unambiguously that good quality sleep is f*cking important. It’s not something to be compromised at a whim, and that’s without yet analysing the gains from improved sleep rhythms and sleep quality as we will see in the next post.
In summary, when assessing the ideal quantity of sleep, 8-9 hours appears to be where it’s at for working age adults. 7 hours is workable, especially when you’re meditating, albeit 7.5 makes a big difference. Anything less, and it’s coming at a cost that you may not enjoy footing the bill for once it arrives.
Hope you all have a beautiful weekend – stay tuned for part 2 of this series next week!