The Most Underrated Thing You Can Do For Your Health: Get Better Sleep

 
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Benjamin Franklin once said, “there will be sleeping enough in the grave.” Some variation of this quote is often used to justify or even brag about skimping on sleep in favor of doing more of something else. If you are anything like me, you have probably pulled an all-nighter at some point, or stolen time away from sleep in order to meet a deadline, stay out with friends longer, or because you just didn’t want to go to bed. We’ve all done it at some point and many of us do it on a regular basis.

And with quotes like Benjamin Franklin’s, why not? After all he is arguably one of the most productive people in history. And we live in a productivity-driven culture that promotes busyness above most things. Yet, you probably already know that busyness does not equal productivity. What you may not know is that the quote I read to you - the one that is often recited - is not the full quote. The first line, which provides real insight to the meaning, is usually omitted. The full quote is "A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things. There will be sleeping enough in the grave." Now what he meant by this was more about how you spend your time awake rather than avoiding sleep. He was advocating for using your time wisely and being productive, but not at the expense of sleep.

In fact, Benjamin Franklin prioritized sleep. He was a big proponent of a sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and he always made sure he got 7 hours of sleep a night...because he knew the importance of sleep for being productive.  

And yet many of us don’t. Sleep is often the first thing we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of work, having a good time with loved ones, or even just scrolling on our phones. People aren’t ashamed to proclaim they skimped on a nights sleep in exchange for something - it’s seen as a badge of honor. It’s acceptable, promoted, and often rewarded in the name of productivity.  Ironically, as Benjamin Franklin knew, lack of sleep does not result in more productivity. It’s actually the opposite. Workers who under sleep produce fewer creative solutions, put in less effort when working with others, are more likely to cut corners or even cheat or lie, are less effective, and are less likely to take on challenging problems. Yet, many people still think they have to skimp on sleep in order to succeed. That simply isn’t true. We would have far more productivity if we followed Benjamin Franklin and prioritized sleep.

But it isn’t all about productivity - good, sufficient sleep helps your body and mind restore, rejuvenate, and function as it is intended. In fact, every major organ, system within your body, and every process that takes place in your brain is either enhanced or impaired by the amount of sleep you get. Think about that for a second - every major organ...every system within your body...and every process that takes place in your brain...is either enhanced or impaired by the amount of sleep you get. You know what it’s like when you get a bad night’s sleep - or a really good night’s sleep. It can make all the difference on how your day goes and how well you function. But it goes beyond the things you can see and feel on a daily basis. Poor sleep has been linked to the same laundry list of health risks typically associated with diet and exercise. It also impacts your immune system pretty dramatically - in fact most people attribute new parents getting sick to their babies being more susceptible to germs and thus bringing the germs into the house; but it’s actually because the parents themselves are more susceptible simply because they aren’t sleeping enough and their immune system takes a hit.

On the flip side, getting good sleep almost seems like a panacea - it positively impacts pretty much all areas of your health - from your metabolism to your heart, from athletic performance to reproduction. It can also impact the neuroplasticity of your brain - which is essentially the way your brain changes and adapts to how you learn, perform tasks, and the impact of your external environment. So, it’s safe to say that, yes, sleep is important.

But what does good sleep mean? Typically it includes things like how long you sleep, how quickly you fall asleep, and how often you wake up. Ideally, you should fall asleep within 30 minutes of trying, wake up no more than once a night - and be able to fall back asleep in less than 20 minutes, and get a sufficient amount of sleep. The sweet spot is 7-9 hours, no more or less, so Benjamin Franklin’s 7 hours meant he was getting the sleep he needed for his highly productive days. While I talked about how too little sleep can negatively impact you, you may be surprised to know that too much sleep is also not good for you. It interferes with your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural wake/sleep cycle. Helping your body sync with its circadian rhythm is ideal for good sleep and healthy functioning.

There are a number of ways you can help your body sync with its circadian rhythm, cultivate a good sleep environment, and create healthy sleep habits that will result in better sleep. While some are relatively simple tips - such as lowering the temperature in your house to between 65 and 67 degrees to help induce sleep; others are more about creating healthy habits that take experimentation and practice - such as creating a bedtime routine or sleep schedule. But, you can’t start creating healthy sleep habits if you don’t prioritize your sleep. And you can’t prioritize your sleep if you aren’t aware of what is currently happening. Now you are probably already aware of if you get good, sufficient sleep or not; but there is a good chance you aren’t aware of your nighttime routine and the signals you are or aren’t sending your body when it comes to sleep. Like pretty much all things, it starts with awareness.

To start building awareness of your sleep habits, pay attention to your nighttime routine the last 2 hours of your day, before you go to bed. Don’t worry about doing anything in particular or changing anything. This isn’t about that. It is simply about observing your routine and how you spend the last 2 hours before bed. Do you typically do the same things every night? Do you watch tv, read, or scroll through social media? Do you take a shower or bath? Do you talk with a loved one? Read a book? Exercise? Eat or drink something? There is no right or wrong answers - this is all about becoming aware of what you do in the last 2 hours before you go to bed. There may be things you intentionally do or some things you weren’t even aware of. Taking time to notice what currently happens at night and bedtime can help you identify any areas that are or aren’t working for you, help highlight something you may not have been aware of, or help you to see habits that may already exist. Again, it’s not about judgment - it’s simply paying attention and becoming aware. It may sound super simple but it’s one of the most underrated and underperformed tasks in our daily lives, and it can be the beginning of real transformation.