In my brand new book Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life, I devote two huge chapters to giving you everything you need to know to get better sleep, eliminate insomnia, and beat jet lag and master the nap, including:
- 4 biohacks to get better sleep
- 7 supplements to help you sleep better
- 10 ways to master the nap
- 5 ways to track your sleep
- 5 strategies to eliminate insomnia
- 5 tips to beat jet lag
But it all begins by with a simple question: How much do you sleep, Mr. Ben Greenfield?
Here’s the deal: I personally sleep 7.5-9 hours per day for every 24 hour day cycle, usually in the form of 7-8 hours of nightly sleep and a 20-60 minute nap. For every 24 hour cycle that I hit this targeted amount of sleep, my workouts are better, my heart rate is well tuned, my nerves are sharp and my creativity and memory are through the roof.
This may seem like a lot of sleep to you. But sleep is pretty darn important. And 99.99% of the time, if someone is telling you they need “less sleep than the average person”, they’re lying to you or lying to themselves.
Even successful celebrities and athletes who don’t sleep very much (AKA “the sleepless elite”), like Barack Obama, Dean Karnazes, Martha Stewart or Donald Trump – all people who claim to sleep only 4-5 hours a night – are probably giving up something somewhere else in their lives or their health to achieve those relatively lowly amounts of shut-eye.
Somewhere in their life (for reasons you’re about to learn) creativity or memory is suffering.
Somewhere in their body, inflammation is running rampant.
Somewhere in a muscle or brain cell, regeneration is not being allowed to happen.
This is the kind of biological damage you create when you don’t sleep enough, especially when you combine lack of sleep with high amounts of physical or mental activity.
As a matter of fact, if you don’t sleep you will die.
Or, as I believe I heard Paleo author Robb Wolf put it at one time: “If you want to kill someone quickly, take away their sleep.”
OK, so this may be a slight over-exaggeration. After all, nearly every one of us has pulled an all nighter at least once in our lives. Although it can be an unpleasant experience, you can nearly 100% recover from one lost night of sleep with one single night of a solid 8-9 hours of sleep.
But cumulative sleep loss is a different story altogether.
In one study, sleep researchers constructed a cruel contraption that would wake up rats as soon as they fell asleep. Using this contraption, it took an average of 3 weeks to kill a rat by sleep deprivation. Other studies have shown demonstrable brain damage in sleep-deprived rats, primarily due to a severe lack of neurogenesis (regrowth or rebuilding of new brain neurons) from rampant levels of sleep-deprivation induced cortisol.
While sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture for rats, researchers could not for ethical reasons reproduce these studies in humans. But by looking at sleep disorders, we can get a pretty clear idea of what happens when you don’t sleep enough.
For example, death occurs within a few months in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a mutation which causes the affected person to suffer from a progressively worsening insomnia that ends in death within a few months. Morvan’s syndrome is another example of how lack of sleep causes death, and in this case, an autoimmune disease destroys the brain’s potassium channels – which leads to severe insomnia and death.
Because of it’s ability to cause high blood pressure and heart disease, each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs. And that does not include accidents and lost productivity at work, which in America alone costs us $150 billion each year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity.
Think of the disasters at Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. The gas leak at Bhopal. The Zeebrugge disaster. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. Go do your research. You’ll find that these and many other major industrial disasters have been directly linked to sleep deprivation.
So why is sleep deprivation fatal?
It’s primarily because sleep deprivation is very similar to speeding up the process of dying of old age. There are two primary reasons for this:
1) your brain cleans up cellular garbage when you sleep;
2) your body repairs itself while you sleep.
Let’s look at the first reason why if you don’t sleep you will die – the need to clean up cellular garbage.
One of the most important functions of sleep is the re-organization of neural networks in your brain. All day long – even on the most boring day possible – you are consciously or subconsciously learning new things, memorizing facts or task processes, acquiring skills, setting new memories through creative associations, meeting new people, etc. After a long day of these wake-time activities, your brain is full of all these disorganized pieces of information that need to be integrated with other things you have learned on other days earlier in your life life.
If this re-organization isn’t allowed to occur, then your mind simply becomes a chaotic storehouse for cellular garbage, and you literally run out of space to store new memories. Once this happens, it affects nearly all functions of your body that are governed by your central nervous system, and your body begins to malfunction.
These malfunctions typically manifest in:
- problems with heat or cold regulation
- a decline in immune function
- an increase in cortisol, catecholamines, and other stress hormones
- imbalances in appetite and blood sugar regulating hormones
- increased levels of inflammatory hormones such as interleukin and C-reactive protein
In later stages of sleep deprivation, you experience malnutrition, hallucinations, malfunction of your autonomic nervous system (e.g. heart arrhythmias, kidney and liver function, etc.), changes in cell adhesion and cell clotting abilities, skin lesions and DNA damage. So that’s the first reason why you die a slow death if you don’t sleep: your body basically falls apart.
This is why it can be so freaking hard to do a run, bike, swim, WOD, or race when you’re sleep deprived – much less make it through a day of mentally or physically demanding work. Your body is full of inflammation, hormone imbalances and blood sugar dysregulation, and operating well below peak mental and physical capability. Unfortunately, many people live most of their adult lives this way, thinking it is completely normal to feel like a waking zombie.
It’s very important that you understand the fix for this is not simply “an easy day” or a period of time spent “getting your feet up”. Unlike rest or conservation of energy, the mechanics of neural repair require your brain to be shut off entirely from environmental input – which means you must actually be sleeping for the repair magic to happen.
The second reason you’ll die if you don’t sleep is because sleep is the primarily anabolic state of the human body.
During nighttime sleep, you experience an increase in growth hormone and testosterone – two crucial muscle repairing hormones which also significantly affect your neural growth and the way you feel during the day. One study describes these nighttime hormonal surges as playing a “crucial role in consolidating and enhancing waking experience”. And it’s why you feel so damn good after a solid night of sleep. It’s also why your body can take 2-3 times longer to repair and recovery from physical exercise when you’re not sleeping.
Not only do your muscles get a chance to fully repair and recover when you’re sleeping, but the same can be said for the restoration of your adrenal glands, the detoxification of your body by your liver, and the rebuilding of your immune system. As a matter of fact, one of the leading causes of death in those rats who underwent sleep deprivation was opportunistic bacterial infections caused by a decline in immune function.
So when you don’t sleep enough, your body is in a continuous, hormonally depleted catabolic state that gets sicker and sicker.
And this is why I shake my head and laugh at people who brag about their low levels of sleep. They’re shrinking their brains, shrinking their muscles, and making themselves sick.
Now I’m not saying you need to be like professional Ironman triathlete Andy Potts and sleep 11 hours a day (although for the extent to which he beats his body up in training he may indeed need that much sleep), but you most likely need to prioritize your sleep more than our overachieving, productivity-obsessed pop culture would have you to believe.
So are you ready to optimize your sleep with every hack possible? Begin with the info graphic below, then delve into my brand new Beyond Training book to get 4 biohacks to get better sleep, 7 supplements to help you sleep better, 10 ways to master the nap, the top 5 ways to track your sleep, 5 strategies to eliminate insomnia, and 5 tips to beat jet lag…
…along with everything else you need in the ultimate cookbook to master performance, fat loss, digestion, mental power, hormonal balance and much more.
Check out my infographic below, and let me know your thoughts on sleep or if you have any questions.
Editor’s Note: We got an advanced copy of Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life and Ben’s book blew our minds. The sleeping hacks here and in his book are amazing, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg with biohacks that will change your life for the better.