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You won't believe how these 9 myths about sleep are ruining your health
And a special offer
There are three behaviours which determine the quality and quantity of your life. Three elements that account for most of how well you feel and how long you live.
These are: exercise, nutrition and sleep.
If you do them well, you are happy, healthy and successful.
If you do them badly, you are depressed, sick and miserable.
Out of the three, sleep is by far the most important.
But there is lots of false information flying around about sleep. Some of it is due to outdated science, some of it comes from our inbuilt biases and some from the lack of interest in sleep.
Today we dispel seven of the main lies about sleep. Seven pieces of information that are making your life worse if you believe them.
Before that, I have a special offer for you.
On 11th June, I am organizing a Masterclass on the Science Sleep and Circadian Rhythm. It is in Bucharest Romania, so if you are there on the 11th June, and know Romanian, I would love for you to come.
And you get a special discount of 40% for being a member of this newsletter. Just enter code VREAUSOMN57 at checkout.
Myth 1. Sleep when you are dead
Truth: sleep or you are dead
The average person sleeps 5.5 hours per night. The optimum is around 8 hours. The difference reduces lifespan by approximately 10 years! (references to studies supporting this conclusion at end of article)
That is not a typo. Sleep is the most crucial element for your health, and thus duration of life.
It makes sense if you think about it more than 20 seconds.
Sleep is an incredibly dangerous activity from a natural selection perspective. You lay immobile, senseless for a third of the time. In this time you don’t find food, you don’t reproduce, you don’t do anything useful, but are vulnerable to all predators.
If sleep was not critical to health, we would have evolved out the need for it long ago. The fact that it remains a necessary part of all animal life is clear proof our bodies simply don’t work without sleep. And without optimal sleep they break down.
People who say they will sleep when they are dead, will in fact soon be dead.
Myth 2. Successful people sacrifice sleep for productivity
Truth: successful people sleep first, then work. Losers sacrifice sleep
A related myth is that you have to sacrifice sleep to get things done. We have the image of the hardworking entrepreneur/ inventor/ businessman/ scientist who toils all night long to produce exception results.
Sure, sometimes that happens. There are moments when you do have to work through the night.
But if you do it regularly, I guarantee you will fail at whatever you want to achieve.
Working more and sleeping less might appear more productive. But you get much less done.
Success does not come in our society from how many hours you work. It comes from what you do in that time.
If it takes a programmer 10 hours to code for something while sleep deprived, but it takes the same person 1 hours when he is rested, which is better?
By the way, it’s exceptionally rare to get the same quality while sleep deprived regardless how long you work. The brain is just worse.
Sleep deprivation significantly decreases both creativity and productivity. However it does increase our opinion of our own work. When sleep deprived, we think we are more productive and creative.
Researchers actually investigated this. They got students to take a test. Those who were sleep deprived had a high opinion of what they did than those who had enough sleep the night before. However the actual results were the opposite. Sleep deprivation led to much lower scores.
Sleep times for some of the most successful people in the world:
Jeff Bezos: 8h,
Bill Gates: 7+h
Jason Fried: 8h
Malcolm Gladwell: 8-9h
Allyson Felix: 7-8h
Mat Fraser: 8-9h
LeBron James: 9-12h
Floyd Mayweather: 9h
Dr. Huberman: 8h
Myth 3. Sleep in during the weekends to catch up on sleep
Truth: Sleep the same every day
Isn’t it great when it’s Saturday morning and you sleep in? There is no alarm, so you get up at around 11 AM.
It’s not great actually. It’s awful.
Is it great when you fly around the world and have jet lag? It’s not.
Sleeping in during the weekends is like jet lag, without the actual flying.
Sleep is the product of circadian rhythm. This changes our state based on signals from the environment around the time of day. These signals do not change from Thursday to Saturday. There is no weekend in biology.
Our biology dictates the same sleeping patterns in every day of the week (there is variation from season to season).
By going to sleep late and getting up late in the weekend, you are disrupting this rhythm. Even if you think you are sleeping well, the quality of your sleep is low. You are losing life and happiness without even realizing.
Myth 4. It does not matter when you sleep as long as you sleep long enough
Truth: sleep roughly from sunset to sunrise. This is 10 PM to 6 AM in most places.
The error in this myth should be clear based on the previous one.
Your circadian rhythm dictates sleep and it depends on the time of day. For your body 3 PM is different from 3 AM.
Thus sleep should happen in a specific interval. Namely from a little after sunset to around sunrise. This varies from season to season and place to place around the globe. An easy simplification is from 10 PM to 6 AM. Then you can give yourself room for longer intervals in winter if you have longer nights, and shorter in summer if you have shorter nights.
Any other sleeping pattern is unnatural and harmful.
If you are working after 9 PM, even if you are only reading emails or messages, it’s also shift work. You are giving yourself cancer by checking email in bed when you should be going to sleep.
Myth 5. Some people are night owls and naturally stay up late
Truth: chronotype variations are too small to be really noticeable. What varies is people’s behaviour and response to modern stimuli
Chronotypes are a categorization based on sleeping habits. If you go to sleep late, you are a night-owl chronotype. If you get up early, you are an early bird. But that does not mean this behaviour is genetically determined. It’s a result of your lifestyle and signals it gives to your body.
There is clear proof of this when you look at the health of different chronotypes. Evening-chronotypes, e.g. night-owls, have more non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease: study, study.
If chronotypes were simply a genetic variation, then you would not get worse health for one of the segments. I am sure there is some variability genetically, but that it is very small. And everybody, regardless of chronotype suffers from sleeping too late and badly.
I wager if you take night owls and put them in a natural environment, they will not be night owls any more. Put them in a forest somewhere, with no screens or sources of artificial light, and they will go to sleep a little after sunset.
Researchers actually did this. In the Circadian Code, Dr. Satchin Panda describes this experiment. The result: all participants, including “night-owls”, went to sleep before 10 PM.
If you are a night owl, check your habits, not your genetics. You are killing yourself by going to sleep late.
Myth 6. If you have trouble sleeping, take a sleeping pill
Truth: sleeping pills prevent sleep because they render you unconscious, but not asleep
There is big business in Pharma for sleeping pills.
This money comes from our health.
Sleep is an incredibly complex activity. Imagine an orchestra of 10,000 people all playing different instruments. They have to coordinate perfectly for 8 hours to produce a flawless symphony.
That is sleep. The orchestra are cells in your body doing an intricate dance.
Our knowledge of pharmaceuticals is far from being able to create this symphony. Sleeping pills don’t do this. What they do is suppress consciousness. So you become unconscious.
But that is not sleep. That is being awake, but unconscious. The most similar state is hitting your head so hard you faint.
Not to mention sleeping pills have a host of serious side effects on top of the lack of real benefit.
Myth 7. If you have trouble sleeping, drink alcohol
Truth: any amount of alcohol disrupts sleep
Alcohol has a similar effect to sleeping pills. It’s more nuanced in that in the first couple of hours it might actually create REM sleep, but then destroys the rest of the sleep. So you get 10-20% of optimal sleep.
This happens even with small doses of alcohol. You don’t have to get drunk to impair sleep. One glass of wine in the evening is enough to create bad sleep.
Myth 8. Sleeping well is the normal state of most people
Truth: it was true. Now optimal sleep is an achievement that extends life, makes you successful and happy.
Sleep is a natural behaviour. We evolved to sleep well. For most of human history, we probably slept great most nights.
Our ancestors slept in the outdoors under starlight listening to the sounds of nature.
It was not idyllic. They had to deal with cold and wind and rain and snow. They had to keep guard for predators.
Yet they slept well most nights. Because those were the conditions in which we evolved to sleep.
Now we sleep badly. We might not realize it, but it’s true.
Instead of starlight, we sleep basked in artificial light. Instead of cold, we sleep in over-warm rooms. Instead of nature sounds we hear automobile traffic, human arguments and machine noises. Instead of gently falling asleep, we ruminate on a thousand tasks and over-stimulate our brains with endless information.
This is why sleep has deteriorated. Now most people sleep too little (5.5 hours instead of 8) and too badly (due to apnea, digestion, overstimulation, anxiety, light pollution, sound pollution, under-stimulation, circadian disruption).
Normal sleep is now bad sleep.
Myth 9. Good sleep happens at night
Truth: good sleep starts in the morning
Almost all sleep advice revolves around what you should do in the evening. However the quality of your sleep tonight depends on what you do throughout the whole, especially the first hour upon waking.
Good sleep is a reflection of your circadian rhythm. When the rhythm is healthy, you fall asleep easily and sleep soundly without any effort. When the rhythm is disrupted, it cannot be fixed only by better night-time routines or supplements or tricks for falling asleep.
A specific part of your brain controls your circadian rhythm. It is the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN for short). It gets information from the environment to sync it with the outside world. These sources of information are light, mental and physical stimulation and food.
Light is the most information for circadian rhythm. You have special cells in your eyes to measure light intensity. In the morning, the sun is strong. These cells measure that and relay the information to the SCN which wakes your body in response.
The problem is if you spend the morning indoors, you don’t get enough light. Indoor lights are hundreds of times weaker than sunlight. Even if you remain in front of a window in the sun, the glass blocks around half of the sunlight.
So if you spend the morning indoors, insufficient light hits your “lux receptors”. Thus you don’t fully wake up. As a result, your circadian rhythm is disrupted and your sleep is harmed.
Solution? go outside in the morning. Get sunlight to fully wake up.
How much do you need? It depends on the day. Sunny days have more light while cloudy ones have less. Winter has less, summer more. But as a general rule, you should spend at least 15 minutes outside in sunlight within 60 minutes of waking up.
Obviously don’t wear sunglasses when you do this :)
These are nine essential truths about sleep. It’s the most important aspect of our lives because it determines the quality of everything else, yet we mostly ignore it.
If you’re in Bucharest on 11th June, come to the masterclass to make your sleep ideal. Code VREAUSOMN57 for 40% off.
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Scientific References used in this article for the lifespan benefit of optimizing sleep:
Study 1 quantifying increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 2 quantifying increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 3 on increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 4 on increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 5 on increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 6 on increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Study 7 on increase in mortality from insufficient sleep
Actuarial tables for average life expectancy