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Prioritising sleep improves mental and physical health

25 April 2021

I have spent my whole life ignoring the holy trinity of optimal health: a balanced diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep. While my exercise routine lacks discipline and I have been on far too many diets for one lifetime, these two pillars are in much better shape than my sleep routine, which is an absolute train wreck.

Sleep is for wimps

I used to wear sleep deprivation like a badge of honour. The expression ‘sleep is for wimps’ was coined by the BBC sitcom, Only Fools & Horses, back in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister. Thatcher famously said she got only four hours of sleep and that is how minimal sleep became associated with hard work and success. I started my professional career in London and spent my 20s and 30s working and playing hard. Who had time for sleep? 

Wake-up call

This strategy started to falter after I turned 40, when no amount of coffee could overcome the feeling of lethargy and a foggy-head. I have struggled with my weight for decades and hired a nutritionist in February 2021 to help me understand why the weight refused to budge despite eating less than some of my model-thin friends and waking up at 4.30am during the week (thanks to Jocko Willink) to cycle 25-40k.

After going through my diet, exercise and daily routine, we identified the biggest culprit other than chocolate: insufficient sleep. I used to survive on 5-6hrs of sleep every night and would get even less at the weekend when I do my best writing between midnight and 4am.

I was forced to make changes when my nutritionist highlighted the scientific fact that people who get less than the recommended 7-8hrs of sleep every night were at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s

Sleep matters… apparently. Here’s why:

#1 Sleep allows the brain to clear toxins

Sleep allows the cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, to deliver vital nutrients and remove toxic waste from the brain. The toxic protein waste, which is released when we are awake, becomes the plaque that causes memory loss and other cognitive impairments if not cleared.

Healthy mind
Sleep supports a healthy mind

#2 Sleep support memory retention

Sleep supports all three phase of learning and memory:

  • Acquisition: the conscious brain receives new information and needs to be alert to do this effectively
  • Consolidation: the unconscious mind processes and consolidates the information during our sleep, committing it to memory
  • Recall: happens when the conscious mind is able to remember the information that is stored. Poor sleep can break the chain

#3 Releases and balances hormones

Sleep deprivation impacts the proper functioning of key hormones:

  • Growth hormone: this is released by the pituitary gland and support cellular growth and repairs. A deficiency of the growth hormone in adults can cause many problems including: weight gain, fatigue, low muscle mass, low bone density, anxiety and depression
  • Hunger hormones: sleep distorts the balance between leptin, which decreases appetite, and gherlin, which increases appetite. Sleep deprivation is one of the factors that limits the body’s ability to respond to signals from leptin and causes unnecessary hunger pangs
  • Insulin: sleep helps the body regulate glucose levels and inadequate sleep is linked to diabetes and weight gain
  • Cortisol: poor sleep increases the levels of cortisol in the body
Sleep and hormones
Sleep balances some of the hormones that could be making you fat

Armed with this depressing knowledge that a 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' attitude will get me there sooner, it was time to change:

  • Sleep trumps everything: I cancelled my 4.30am wake ups (sorry, Jocko!) and now sleep for 7-8hrs minimum, no matter what. Even if it means missing a workout. I missed many workouts the first month I started my experiment (March 2021) and still managed to lose weight
  • Winding down: after reading about Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen's rule to keep  cellphones away from their bed when they sleep, I instituted a 9pm digital devices ban. This also stops me from checking my phone in the middle of the night, when a quick bathroom break turns into a long conversation with my overseas relatives and friends

So why do I feel healthier after only two months? My foggy head cleared after a combination of good sleep and regular head massages, I now wake up feeling rested and my hormonal imbalance is slowly improving, which means I don't gain 2kg overnight after eating the wrong food. I know that my body will take time to heal. I need to give it the space to work its magic.

Are you still skeptical about the power of sleep? Then check out the sleeping patterns of some of the most famous people in the world and notice how the angriest people sleep the least:

  • 3hrs: Gordon Ramsay, Donald Trump
  • 5hrs: Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg
  • 6hrs: Barack Obama, Elon Musk
  • 7hrs: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos
  • 8hrs: Warren Buffet, Oprah
  • 8.5-9hrs: Tiger Woods, Tom Brady

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One comment on “Prioritising sleep improves mental and physical health”

  1. Read about the importance of sleep in the past but this article is so well explained and gives a lot of facts and is concise.