Sleep experts still recommend getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly. But, most people sleep less than that and it’s costing their health. Inadequate sleep can affect your concentration, memory, immune system, blood sugar levels, appetite and more.
According to Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he’s a professor of neuroscience and psychology, “You may have heard that you can sleep when you’re dead – it is actually mortally unwise advice from a very serious standpoint.” Walker was interviewed recently on NPR’s Fresh Air Program.
Your brain also can’t get back that lost sleep. “You never get back all that you lost. You will sleep longer, but you will never achieve that full eight-hour repayment, as it were.”
Aging and sleep
OK baby boomers, we need just as much if not more sleep as we age. But, our brains are not capable of generating as much sleep as we age. “So, the total amount of sleep actually decreases. We also know that the continuity of sleep also starts to fall apart. Sleep becomes much more fragmented. There are many more awakenings throughout the night for a variety of reasons – pain and bathroom trips, etc.,” said Walker.
So unfortunately, both quantity and quality of sleep decrease as we get older. “And it seems to be particularly the deepest stage of sleep, something that we call non-rapid eye movement sleep or non-REM sleep. By the time you’re in your 50s, you’ve perhaps lost almost 40 to 50 percent of that deep sleep that you are having, for example, when you are a teenager. By age 70, you may have lost almost 90 percent of that deep sleep,” said Walker.
The problem with sleeping pills
Unfortunately, the current set of sleeping pills are a broad set of chemicals called sedative hypnotics that do not produce naturalistic sleep, according to Walker. “Sedation is not sleep. It’s very different. It doesn’t give you the restorative natural benefits of sleep.”
Also, with sleeping pills, once you stop them, your bad sleep tends to return. “But worse, you tend to have what’s called rebound insomnia, where your sleep is even worse,” said Walker.
Another concern with sleeping pills is that they have been linked to a higher risk of death and cancer. “And I think this evidence has perhaps not made its way clearly out to the public yet. We don’t simply know if people who are taking sleeping pills are also people who are more likely to die a faster death or more likely to suffer from cancer. But it could very well be that those sleeping pills do cause a higher likelihood of death and cancer,” said Walker.
Natural alternatives to insomnia
- Try meditation before sleep. It quiets the mind, and dampens down what we call the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system, which is one of the key features of insomnia.
- Avoid digital screens and allow time to wind down with a book or bath.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). Work with a therapist for a few weeks. Just as effective as sleeping pills but without the rebound insomnia effects.
- Herbal sleep aids: my favorite is Insomnitol made by Designs for Health. The key ingredients are valerian, passion flower, lemon balm, and chamomile.
- Melatonin only helps with the timing of sleep so it can be useful when you’re traveling across time zones and need to adjust your sleep schedule.
Link to NPR Fresh Air interview: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/10/16/558058812/sleep-scientist-warns-against-walking-through-life-in-an-underslept-state