Ditch that anti-sleep lifestyle: Why a healthy 7-9 hours is a must for your health

Fitness expert Jillian Michaels tells us she'd take sleep over a workout.

Fitness expert Jillian Michaels tells us she'd take sleep over a workout.

When Jillian Michaels stopped by CBC Life, she shared wellness wisdom we could all use when it comes to fitness, body transformation and overall health. In addition to effective demandments on food quantity, quality and how to exercise efficiently, Jillian brought up an important factor we all seem to neglect — sleep. Sleeping just because you're tired is a gross underestimation of how the body functions at rest. As Michaels points out, when you sleep, your body can take the nutrients you consumed during the day and turn its focus to general "housekeeping" — balancing your hormones, controlling your appetite, strengthening your immunity, fighting aging and preparing your body and mind for the next day ahead. In fact, Michaels (who happens to have a new book coming out on how to "Unlock Your Genetic Potential for Ageless Strength, Health, and Beauty"), says that if she had a choice between six hours of sleep and a workout or eight hours of sleep, she'd take the eight hours. 

So why are we so willingly sleep deprived, when experts and evidence tells us to do the opposite? Firstly, there's a chance you're not even aware what constitutes a good night's sleep. The National Sleep Foundation assembled a panel of experts along with 277 pertinent studies to determine the key factors in good, quality sleep. The panel highlighted four key elements - being asleep at least 85% of the time spent in bed, falling asleep within 30 minutes or less and waking up no more than once per night (for less than 20 minutes) - as indicators  of high sleep quality. As far as quantity, it's recommended that an individual between the ages of 18-64 sleep between 7-9 hours per night, while the recommendation is 7-8 hours for those 65 and older. Too much sleep is also not a good thing - the sleep-to-wake ratio needs to be stable for either to function properly. Another myth, often subscribed to by "weekend warriors", is that you can "catch up" on sleep. A Harvard study into the issue discovered that "making up" for lost sleep is not only ineffective, but may make your reaction times and ability to focus even worse.

Many of us are not getting 7-9 hours of high quality sleep every night, so what gives? Well, not only are we misunderstanding quality sleep, we're also prioritizing our waking hours far more than our resting ones. There's a purveying attitude that there's just too much to do in a day to waste it on sleep. A 2014 survey of 124,000 respondents found that the predominant activity that causes sleep-sacrifice is work. "Short sleepers" - those sleeping 6 hours or less per night - were more likely to be working more on weekdays and weekends, starting earlier, ending later, working multiple jobs and having longer commutes than those who slept longer. Not only does this illuminate the high priority of work (there's even a stigma known as sleep guilt), but the fact that the people who work the longest and hardest are those who are getting the least sleep is a disturbing trend.

The connection between our work and sleep habits goes even deeper. An occupational health study published this year found that negativity in the workplace contributed to symptoms of insomnia and that those who were able to take a post-work break, in the form of an activity (like yoga or walking), were found to have a better night's sleep. Not only is a good night's rest integral on its own, but a quality sleep can help correct the course of other negative behaviours that your stressful job could be influencing. A study of workers in China found that workday stress contributes directly to poor eating habits (overeating, junk food, etc.) but that a quality sleep was able to mitigate the stress response, helping individuals have better control over their food choices.

Another major reason for poor sleep across all demographics is the device you're likely reading this article on. Evening use of light-emitting devices (phone, computer, tablet, etc.) has been found to suppress melatonin (the all-important sleep regulating hormone), cause you to postpone your bedtime and even make you less alert the next morning. The problem is so severe that a research review by experts in the field led them to publish recommendations for healthy bedtime behaviours for children and teens to help facilitate the conversation that our lifestyles are doing significant damage to our sleeping habits.

But if you're not willing to give up scrolling Instagram past 10pm, maybe you don't realize the full health effects of poor sleep. Certainly, as Michaels alluded to, scarce sleep can hit you in the gut - poorer sleeping habits have been linked with a greater likelihood to be overweight, obese and in poor metabolic health - but the full consequences can be even more dire. Though a small and early finding, a recent study found that, after no sleep for just one night, the brain showed an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein commonly associated with the formation of Alzheimer's Disease.

As convincing as avoiding such major health concerns should be, a regular quality sleeping schedule can boost your mind and mood too. A sleep analysis of over 35,000 people found that the benefits of a good night's sleep can equal the psychological happiness of winning the lottery.

It's easy to know you should get a good sleep, but even easier to misunderstand why and not be motivated to get it done. But, as the research continues to develop and deepen along with greater awareness through popular influencers like Jillian Michaels, it's hard to see what areas of your life wouldn't be affected by a poor night's sleep and any benefits of staying awake simply aren't worth the risks. Though it's an uphill challenge to modify our anti-sleeping lifestyles, it's crucial that we begin to put more emphasis on proper sleep as free and easy solution to maximize our mental and physical potential.