Many folks believe that sleep is not a big deal. You miss a few hours and you make up for it the next night, or the night after that. Some folks actually brag about how little sleep they get by with. Lucky, yes? It turns out that sleep is not a big deal, it’s a HUGE deal. According to T.S. Wiley, author of Lights Out, sleep deprivation is actually seasonal and for those who get less than 9.5 hours during the 7 “winter months” may actually be setting themselves up for serious health issues. Dr. Eve Van Cauter concurs. She found that the metabolic and endocrine changes resulting from sleep deficit look just like aging. “We suspect that chronic sleep loss may not only hasten the onset but could also increase the severity of age-related ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and memory loss.”

There have been over 1000 studies looking at the effects of sleep so why haven’t we heard about important it is? When queried, Dr. Wehr of the Department of Seasonal Circadian Rhythmicity at the National Institute of Health replied” Well, yes, [the public] has a right to know. They should be told, but it won’t change anything. Nobody will turn off the lights”.

We are a sleep deprived nation. Over 42% are unable to stay awake and another 26% can’t get to sleep. Sleep has become an issue since the advent of electric light. In nature, a person would sleep 12 hours per night. Eighty years ago, the annual value fell 9.3 hours. Now we are sleeping around 7 hours a night.

How does sleep affect our health?

Sleep involves complicated systemic interactions throughout the body. It is involved in removing cellular debris, protecting our mitochondria and DNA from damage, repairing and replacing old cells, cooling inflammation, and generating neurotransmitters. This is important stuff!

How? Light/dark cycles or circadian rhythm is an important part of our physiology. Our bodies adapt to periods of feast/famine by the ability to store fat from carbohydrates (and a few amino acids) via the hormone insulin. During the summer when food is abundant, our ancestors would consume lots of food to produce fat and cholesterol as a means of surviving the harsh “carbohydrate-less” winter. Hormones turned-off appetite suppression. We became insulin resistant which allowed us to store as much fat as possible. This not only nourished us, but the cholesterol would keep our cell membranes from freezing. So basically, long summer days meant plenty of time for food storage and procreation, and the dark cycle (both winter and sleep), allowed regeneration to occur.

So what does this have to do with sleep? The problem with continual short nights is that they simulate summer and the storage of fat. This “long day” causes artificially high levels of cortisol/insulin throughout the evening. And since these levels do not fall until we reach a very deep sleep, cortisol doesn’t rise normally in the morning as it should. This results in a reversal of our natural hormonal rhythm. It’s no wonder why many of us are not waking up easily! This Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) is really important. It stimulates the release of blood sugar, brings down inflammation, and removes unhealthy immune cells. (Learn more CAR in our article about fatigue). In addition to insulin resistance, high cortisol reduces production of growth hormone and robs our amino acids stores which makes it even more difficult for the body to repair itself.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the cycle also controls melatonin secretion. In addition to triggering sleep, melatonin is a powerful antioxidant–hundreds of times more powerful than Vitamin C or E. Melatonin penetrates right into the mitochondria to protect it from harm by oxidative stress. So without adequate sleep, we lose our source of metabolic fuel and cellular defense. We wonder why we may be tired, brain dead, weak, susceptible to chronic and degenerative disease, etc..

Another important event that occurs during the nighttime is autophagy, or cellular recycling. This is the time when damaged cells and mitochondria are broken down, recycled, and replaced with brand new cells. Without good cellular maintenance, our cells do not get “upgraded”. This leaves us prone to the same issues as above, with accelerated aging to boot.

Another surprising issue. Sleep deficiencies can also increase our cardiovascular risk. Researchers believe that homocysteine might be elevated in some individuals due to the destruction of a crucial pathway enzyme (that can be deactivated by a blue light cryptochrome–watch your electronic use at night). For others, it could be the shear stress due to seasonal high blood pressure caused by elevated cortisol levels (along with carbohydrate water weight and serotonin/insulin resistance).

The proof is in the studies!

Since one of the most profound effects of limited sleep is on blood sugar regulation (and which in itself is the source of many degenerative diseases), let’s look at this interesting study. Researcher enlisted 11 healthy young men to sleep in a specific manner fro 16 consecutive nights. During the first 3 nights, the men slept for 8 hours (11 p.m. to 7 a.m). The next 6 nights, 4 hours (1 to 5 a.m). Finally, they were allowed 7 nights of 12 hour uninterrupted sleep (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) Diets were identical for all periods and subjects.

What they discovered is that there was so much sugar dysregulation during the periods of limited sleep that they participants actually started to demonstrate patterns of type-2 diabetes. They required 40 percent longer than normal to regulate their blood-sugar levels and insulin sensitivity decreased by about 30 percent. Sleep deprivation also interfered with many other important hormones including TSH, sex hormones, and neurotransmitters.

It is important to note, that these abnormalities quickly returned to normal and actually improved by the end of the 12 hour sleep cycle. This indicates that even eight hours of sleep may not be long enough! Keep in mind, that since stress can be of any origin: physical, spiritual, and/or emotional, increased sleep requirements might be due to our bodies response to the daily stress of our “normal” lives.

How does actual light affect sleep?

To enable physiological changes, our bodies are designed to detect light. Actually, every part of us is able to read changing light intensity and spectrum. Cells called cytochromes pick up blue tones via the skin. This light is sent to our gut bacteria (which require both light and sugar to survive, who knew!). Once fed, the bacteria in our intestines release a waste product called endotoxin LPS. During the course of a day, the immune system eventually responds to the rising levels of LPS by rendering us unconscious! As darkness falls, the body detects the rose tones of sunset and produces melatonin. Melatonin lowers the body temperature to slow our metabolic rate. as well of that as our friendly gut bacteria, which in turn lowers the level of LPS. This allows the immune system to relax which wakes us up (at the same time the green daylight turns off melatonin).

It is important to note, that even small amounts of light can initiate this reaction. At Cornell University, researchers illuminated a patch of skin no bigger than the size of a quarter. All other areas of the body were kept in complete darkness. They were surprised to find that both the subject’s temperature and melatonin levels were noticeably affected!

What can we do to help improve our sleep?

Obviously it is important to reduce any forms of stress including food intolerance, subclinical infections, dehydration, hormone dysregulation, lifestyle, genetics, etc. You can measure your adrenal activity indirectly and look for underlying dysfunction with Functional Blood Chemistry Analysis. Sleep requires the action of many hormones. Cortisol levels, circadian rhythm, melatonin, oxidative stress, and sex hormones can be measured directly via hormone testing. Diet should be designed to support blood sugar dysregulation and minimize inflammation.

For those that have an issue sleeping:

  • Consider an all protein or fat snack an hour prior to bedtime.
  • Try to get to sleep by 10pm.
  • Use room darkening shades.
  • Employ evening relaxation practices.
  • Supplements such as magnesium, L-theanine, and herbal teas help many folks to relax.
  • The use of electronics really can affect our circadian rhythm and sleep. Try avoiding electronic use before bedtime (or use blue light blocking glasses), turn off electricity to room at night or other EMF reducing strategies to help reset your circadian rhythm.  A couple of interesting studies: and

For those that supplement with melatonin, please note that long term use might cause a reduction in size of the pineal gland over time reducing naturally produced melatonin. Conversely, signs of overproduction of melatonin include needing an alarm or waking up “hungover” since light is no longer suppressing melatonin spontaneously.

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