Sleep Series pt. 1 | Sleep Basics
Welcome to Part One of our Sleep Series! We're thrilled to take you on a journey through the world of sleep, where we'll be exploring everything from the basics to the more advanced concepts. In this series, we'll cover sleep hygiene and nutrition, sleep trackers, wearables, and more.
As a human performance expert for the past 10 years, I have come to realize that proper sleep is the ultimate game changer for enhancing performance and life longevity. However, I haven't always been the best sleeper myself due to bad habits and a lack of motivation to change. I'm still working on improving my own sleep quantity and quality, and in this series, I'll be sharing my knowledge and insights on how you can do the same.
When it comes to sleep, everyone's experience is different. Some people look forward to slipping into bed and drifting off to dreamland, while others may dread the tossing and turning that often accompanies a restless night. Regardless of your personal relationship with sleep, it's important to understand the impact it has on your overall health and well-being. In this series, we'll explore the ins and outs of sleep, from the basics to the more advanced concepts, so that you can become an expert on your own sleep patterns and habits. So, whether you love those sweet, sweet Zzz's or dread the thought of counting sheep, read on to learn more about how you can optimize your sleep for a healthier, happier you.
Let's dive into the fundamentals of sleep in this article and explore why it's crucial for our overall well-being. We'll also take a closer look at the underlying physiology that governs our sleep patterns and shed light on some of the key concepts you need to know.
How much sleep do we actually need?
The amount of sleep we need depends on multiple factors with the first being age. Infants generally need anywhere from 12-16 hours of sleep because they are growing at such a rapid rate. Ages 6-13 generally need 9-11 hours, and adults need around 7-9 hours. The amount of sleep we need typically decreases as we age, but depending on how physically active we are it can be closer to 8 or 9.
If you went to boot camp prior to 5 years ago you were probably told that sleep is for the weak or I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Many busy professionals believe that sleeping less than 6 hours is acceptable due to a new societal norm. However, depriving your body of sufficient sleep will lead to negative impacts on your physical and mental health, including decreased athletic performance, slower reaction times, reduced emotional control, and even an increased risk of developing dementia. Don't fall into the trap of thinking less sleep is better; prioritize your health and prioritize sleep.
Quantity & Quality
While many people focus solely on the amount of sleep they get, it's equally important to consider sleep efficiency - the ability to stay asleep throughout the night. This is where sleep trackers come in handy, as they can objectively measure and track sleep efficiency.
A sleep efficiency of over 85% is considered good, while over 90% is great. With this data, you can make behavioral, environmental, and nutritional changes to improve your sleep quality. If you don't have a sleep tracker, a good rule of thumb is to pay attention to how you feel mid-morning without caffeine. If you feel tired, it could be a sign that your sleep quality and quantity are suffering, and your deep sleep and REM sleep may be impacted as well.
What dictates falling asleep?
How does your body know when to go to sleep? The body has evolved to work off a 24-hour rhythm that can be impacted by multiple variables such as light, exercise, nutrition, and social time. The granddaddy of keeping a good circadian rhythm is light.
It's no secret that exposure to natural light upon waking is key to regulating our body's internal clock and signaling the start of a new day. This synchronization of our circadian rhythm not only helps us feel alert and energized but also sets the stage for a restful night's sleep later on. Consistently incorporating these light exposure practices into your daily routine can greatly improve your sleep quality and overall well-being, even in the face of life's unavoidable disruptions.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not just a supplement you can get from the drugstore - our bodies produce melatonin naturally. Produced by the pineal gland, melatonin is a messenger that communicates night and day to your brain and body and essentially acts like an internal alarm clock. When it's dark, the body produces more melatonin, triggering the internal alarm clock that signals it's time to sleep. This is why it's important to limit exposure to blue light, which can interfere with the body's natural production of melatonin and disrupt our sleep-wake cycle.
By prioritizing a healthy sleep environment and minimizing exposure to blue light, we can ensure that our body's internal clock stays in sync, helping us fall asleep faster and enjoy a more restful night's sleep. Melatonin can be thought of as the starting signal for the sleep race. However, it's important to note that melatonin only signals the start; it doesn't actively participate in the race. We'll dive deeper into the role of melatonin and its supplementation in a later article in this series.
Let's talk about another superstar in the sleep world - Adenosine. This special organic compound has multiple functions in the body, but for our purposes, we'll focus on how it affects sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, your body begins to build up adenosine. Throughout the day, adenosine levels continue to rise until you eventually fall asleep. The cycle then starts anew the next time you wake up. The more adenosine that accumulates, the more tired you become.
Have you ever wondered why caffeine makes you feel less sleepy? It's because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, which is why you may feel less tired after that morning cup of joe or energy drink. This is one of the reasons why we may crash after consuming caffeine following a night of poor sleep.
To wrap it all up I hope you learned a lot about the basics of sleep. In Part Two of our Sleep Series we will talk about sleep stages and how to improve sleep.
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Hamlin MJ, Deuchrass RW, Olsen PD, et al. The effect of sleep quality and quantity on athlete’s health and perceived training quality. Frontiers in sports and active living. September 10, 2021. Accessed May 31, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8461238/.
Walker M. Why We Sleep. Scribner; 2017.
About the Author
Jacob Behara is a Human Performance Data Scientist at the US Army. Prior to working for the army, he spent the previous 3.5 years serving in similar positions with the Air Force Special Warfare Pipeline at the 351st SWTS and Special Warfare Candidate Course. During his time in the military Jacob has developed an affinity for sleep science and education based on objective sleep data from things like sleep wearables. Before Jacob transitioned into the tactical setting he was a strength coach with stops at the Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, the University of Kansas, Stetson University, and EXOS. Jacob has a Masters in Exercise Science from Oklahoma State University and a Bachelors in Dietetics and Exercise also from OSU. Disclaimer: These views do not represent the views of the company Jacob works for, the army, or the Department of Defense