Sleep - it's so underrated

Health advocate David Contarini shares his experience with sleep disorders.

I developed a sleep disorder in the weeks following my father’s death.

A typical day went like this: I woke up exhausted after three to five hours’ sleep. Took a cold shower to wake up. Coffee. Exhausted by lunch time. Anxiety attack mid-afternoon. Another wake-up-in-a-cup, then a session in the gym (to get me more tired, right?). Serial clock watching after dinner, TV, snack, bed. Eyes open, eyes open, eyes open until the whole charade started over again.

This went on for about a week and let’s just say my wife was ready to leave me. I’d become an angry and anxious zombie. The doctor gave me pills – the same as Vietnam war fighter pilots used after dropping bombs throughout the night, I was told. The only thing they did to me was to shrapnel my brain into tiny pieces – I felt worse: bloated, bedraggled and bone tired.

It was no wonder I was feeling this way when you look at the physiological factors at play.

I was bloated because my body was holding on to fat cells. If you’re going to be awake all night, it makes sense your body will burn all its sugar (glucose) reserves first and save its best energy (fat) for the long haul.

I was wide awake because of the hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These are released by the adrenal gland on top of your kidneys in response to stress and I was fuelling them both with a constant elixir of anxiety and exercise (yes, exercise produces a stress response in the body). High cortisol and adrenaline mean the journey from relaxation to sleep is nigh impossible.

I was weak due to a lack of human growth hormone secretion. This quasi-magical substance released from the pituitary gland in your brain aids in the production and restoration of muscle cells.  My HGH had tempered to a trickle. No wonder I felt as weak as water.

I was hungry all the time because of leptin. Leptin is your ‘feeling full’ hormone which when secreted from our stomach, signal the brain we’re done with eating. Leptin increases during sleep, shutting off the hunger response. But if we don’t sleep the opposite happens. It’s another reason why lack of sleep makes us gain weight by wanting to eat more.

I was aging before my very eyes. This was due to my Telomeres getting shorter. Telomerers are the ‘end caps’ of your chromosomes which protect your cells and genes. They’re like the plastic ends of your shoe laces – and we all know what happens when they peel off! The shorter and more damaged the telomerers, the faster your aging becomes. In fact, studies show children who don’t get enough sleep age quicker than those who do.

I’m sure you can relate to my lack-of-sleep experience, especially if you’ve raised children. But how do we change our mind-set about sleep so that we give it the respect it deserves?

Here are my observations:

1. Sleep is king.

Even though sleep research is still in its infancy, the results are conclusive: you perform worse with poor sleep because of a breakdown in brain chemistry. Bulimia of the brain if you like. No wonder sleep deprivation is a very effective interrogation technique – it breaks down people’s will, as I found out. Those who think they’re doing well on little sleep are simply deceiving themselves. Period. 

2. Awake your inner athlete.

Sleep is the most under-utilised human performance tool on the planet, yet it’s the last thing we consider if we’re feeling less than optimal. Board report to finish? No problem, I’ll bang it out by 2am. Studying for that final MBA exam? Snap! I’ll get up two hours early to revise. Most people try to manage their sluggishness with changes to diet (the 3pm chocolate bar); stress (I need a holiday) or exercise (I’ll do extra to ‘break-through’ my plateau). Ask  people whether they’re getting enough sleep, however, and you’ll get the same response: “I’m far too busy for that!”.  From improving sports performance to just trying to get through the day, it’s simply revolutionary how better we feel when our sleep quota is reached.

3. Sleep over forks.

Without sleep your ‘I’m eating well’ benefits are almost null and void. If you think your low-fat, high carb, microbiome, green smoothie diet is getting you through the day on five hours’ sleep, think again. No super diet will work without a solid sleep platform. The same goes for exercise. Your goal of stronger, faster, lighter or higher will never eventuate without enough sleep.

How did it work out for me in the end? Ear plugs. Yep, ear plugs. Turns out I was hyper-sensitive to noise and as soon as I dampened the world around me, I was sleeping like a baby.

To hear more about David’s health journey, listen to Your Shout.

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