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Sleep Optimisation – The Secret to Creativity, Enhanced Work and Sexual Performance!

Sleep deprivation, altered sleep patterns and what was more recently termed “social jetlag” (describing the discrepancy between biological and social time, highly prevalent nowadays and associated with health problems) are becoming an epidemic in modern societies (1). 

Traditionally, we’ve been relying on sleeping pills or melatonin to help us nod off. But melatonin, although a hormone, is only a biological marker of darkness, not specifically a sleep hormone, according to sleep expert Prof. Russell Foster. Taking melatonin internally to trick your body to go to sleep while the photoreceptors in your skin can sense it is light outside may only create further circadian confusion. Equally, sleeping pills pose a high risk of death and cancer, according to scientist Prof. Matthew Walker

Could tech help us solve this issue? With the market for falling asleep and staying awake being currently valued at around $60B, the sheer amount of brand new startups entering this market is staggering, which makes sleep-tech the hottest tech trend of 2019. 

There are now entire industry showcases dedicated to sleep, such as SOMNEX in London, which I attended last year. The event left me completely in awe at the ingenuity and cleverness of some of the solutions offered, many with their own unique patents, designs and new approaches to solving the seemingly universal problem of sleep disruption: from head and wrist wearables, to bed sensors, sleep robots and the latest smart mattress, all vying to adjust your environment for a better night’s sleep, this industry has you covered. 

Still, to think that “minute differences in light, noise, body position and temperature can all disrupt a peaceful snooze” (source) and that the story ends here, is to ignore the underlying biological mechanisms for poor sleep. These can range from hormonal imbalances such as high cortisol at night, chronic low-grade inflammation and blood glucose dysregulation with a sugar dip in the middle of the night that will cause you to wake up grumpy or hungry. Apart from physical factors underpinning bad sleep, there are various other ones: emotional, social, spiritual, environmental, occupational, with most experts agreeing that the first two make the greatest difference. The physical and emotional factors in fact overlap, since emotional factors such as stress, bad relationships, loneliness often lead to biological consequences such as the ones described above.

While emotional factors may take longer to manage, there’s a lot you can do about your physical environment. While you might think that sleep is all about melatonin and darkness, a lack of natural, full-spectrum light exposure during the day alongside increased exposure to artificial light, especially LED, in the evening, may well be the number one physical factor preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. Experts agree that direct exposure to morning light as soon as you get up can help you reset your circadian biology; the very mechanism that reminds your body it’s time to get to sleep in the evening by causing a natural cortisol drop in the evening and a surge in what has been called the “sleepiness drive”. Another factor that may mess with your sleep is exposure to non-native EMFs coming from computers, TVs, microwaves, basically all the electronic gadgets in the modern household. If you’re a sleep hacker, you should definitely try to increase your understanding of these, and one of our future articles will tackle light in particular. 

For the purposes of the current article, the idea is to get you up to speed with the latest in sleep science and what happens in your body when you don’t get enough good quality shut-eye. 

Sleep deprivation (comprising short, low-quality or mistimed sleep) leads to lower work performance, by impairing attention and working memory as well as long-term memory and decision-making (2)

It also increases the risk of metabolic diseases, especially obesity, diabetes, CVD (3), and even cancer and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, due to the body’s decreased ability to repair itself and flush toxins such as amyloid beta out from the brain through the recently discovered glymphatic pathway, a process that happens during the deep stage of sleep (4).

But if you’re not worried you might lose your job or if you think that all of the above health dangers are light years away from you, how about this: men who aren’t sleeping well have the same testosterone level as men 10 years their senior. Apart from the obvious implications of this finding, a chronic lack of sleep will also age a man by a decade, according to Prof. Matthew Walker. Therefore if you’re someone in your 30s,  you’ll actually look and feel 40. No wonder people start having middle-age crises so much earlier now!  

Sleep research also shows that women are twice more susceptible to develop insomnia due to anxiety than men are and that a chronic lack of sleep significantly decreases their libido. On the plus side, some studies show that libido in women goes up 15% with every hour of extra sleep. 

Drama queens and creative people should also pay attention: optimising our rest helps us control our emotional responses, while it also helps us connect the dots – which is the very essence of creativity, as sleep expert Penny Lewis points out. The link between sleep and creativity was first hypothesised 100 years ago by a German psychobiologist Otto Loewi, an idea that earned him a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1936. Lewis took this idea further and showed how the two main phases of sleep—REM and non-REM—work together to help us find unrecognised links between what we already know, as well as discover out-of-the-box solutions to challenging problems. Her lab is developing ways to manipulate sleep (called ‘Sleep Engineering’) in order to maximise its beneficial properties. 

Before moving on to methods of optimising sleep, it would be useful to know if there’s anything you’re doing in your life right now that negatively impacts sleep. Alcohol for instance is a sedative and some people find it helps them fall asleep. Sedation is not the same though and this habit can be harmful in the long term due to the fact that alcohol blocks REM sleep, the phase that enhances creativity but also helps with processing emotional stuff. This means that the idea of a “night cap” couldn’t be more misconstrued (sorry, folks!). Similarly, caffeine blocks brain receptors from detecting adenosine, a chemical that drives drowsiness. Considering that caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, and depending on the time you want to go to bed, you should time your last cup of coffee intelligently if you want to optimise your sleep and derive all the health benefits associated with it. 

With this in mind, watch this space for part 2 of the article that deals with practical steps for further optimisation, while marking your diary for Xpomet© Medicinale – The Future of Health Festival to take place between 10–12 October 2019 in Berlin.