Sleep is awesome!

Sleep is awesome! Just like food and water, we need it for our physical and mental well-being. The problem is that many of us are not getting enough or good quality sleep on a regular basis.

The goal of this post is to highlight some of the amazing things that happen during sleep and to stimulate the reader to think about making small changes in the daily routine that might have a big payoff.

How much sleep do we need?

The average newborn will sleep around 14 to 16 hours per day and half of that time is spent in rapid eye movement sleep (stage of sleep during which most of us dream). It is downhill from there on, and sleep length gradually decreases as we get older.  The average healthy adult will need about eight hours of sleep to function optimally and will spend much less time in dream sleep. The magic eight-hour number has been determined from large surveys and laboratory studies that gave healthy people an opportunity to sleep without having to worry about going to work and with very limited access to electronics.

We also know that sleep debt — similar to a credit card debt — can creep up on a person. If you are getting just 20 to 30 minutes less sleep per night than what your body needs, you will accumulate a big deficit over time. This deficit then contributes to not feeling and performing well.

What happens in the brain during sleep?

One common assumption is that the brain gets switched off when we are sleeping, when just the opposite is happening. When we are in dream sleep, the brain is firing on all cylinders and the cells in the brain are “shaking hands” and “talking” to each other non-stop. The result of all that activity is the formation of new connections and networks which allow us to remember learned information and to apply it.

Getting the right amount and high-quality sleep is especially important for children and teenagers as their brains are undergoing tremendous growth and they need to process huge amounts of information.

We all know that a sleep-deprived brain is not a happy brain. Sleep lifts our mood and helps us keep a positive outlook on life.  Parents of teenagers likely agree that a well-rested teenager is much more fun to be around.

Sleep is the brain’s housekeeper. Recent research suggests that a major function of sleep is the flushing out of metabolic products that could harm the brain; similar to the rinse cycle on your washing machine.

The sleep-deprived brain works as poorly as a drunken brain. A study of healthy adults found that 24 hours without sleep resulted in the same poor performance test as having a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent. Unfortunately, like the drunken brain, the sleepy brain does not really know how impaired it is.

What happens in the body during sleep?

Sleep makes muscles perform better. All elite athletes know this and make sure that they are getting enough sleep during training and before competitions. A study in college basketball players showed improved 3-point shooting averages and a one-second improvement in 282 feet sprint time with no change other than sleeping more.

Sleep strengthens our immune system. Not getting enough sleep can increase the risk for illness due to infections.

Things to consider for more and better sleep

If your child is getting the age-appropriate amount of sleep per night and is alert after waking up and during the day, stop reading right here. Otherwise, read on.

  • Measure sleep

In order to get a better feeling for the magnitude of the sleep deficit, it can be helpful to keep a daily sleep diary for a week or two. The diary should include the bedtime routine and the time of falling asleep and waking up. If the average daily sleep duration is adequate but your child is still very tired, something might be wrong with the sleep quality. Poor sleep quality could be caused by medical problems, medications, stress or sleep apnea. If the sleep is not refreshing, or your child has a very hard time falling asleep at night, it might be a good idea to talk to your child’s doctor.

  • Develop healthy sleep habits

Try to provide an environment that helps with the transition to sleep. Keep the room dark (small nightlight OK if needed). Find the temperature that is most comfortable (too cold or too warm makes it harder to fall asleep). Avoid a heavy meal or exercise right before bedtime. Keep all electronic entertainment devices out of the bedroom. This can be hard to do if the child has gotten used to these devices. It is best to set rules early on and have a dedicated space outside of the bedroom for computer, game station and all the fun handheld devices.

Advise your child to only go into the bed when ready to fall asleep. Avoid reading books, playing video games or other activities in bed. The brain gets used to being entertained in bed and then keeps seeking that stimulation instead of being able to switch to sleep mode.

  • Supercharge the brain with naps

Short naps are extremely effective. A 10-minute nap will improve your brain power for a full 2.5 hours. Pretty good return on investment, I’d say. The beauty of the short nap is that it is short (you can also do it more than once a day). Most importantly, you avoid the groggy or dopey feeling you might get after a longer nap.

  • Back to school

Teenagers often struggle with the transition from the summer break back to school. Their body clock has adapted to a very late bed and wake-up time. The first couple of weeks of school can therefore be a real drag. The transition to school can be made less stressful by starting a week or two before the end of summer break. Going to bed at a slightly earlier bedtime every night and getting up a bit earlier every day is often easier than the hard transition in just one night. Bright light in the morning and avoidance of electronic devices in the evening will also help adjust the body clock to an earlier time.

Holger Link, M.D., M.R.C.P.
Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program
Division of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital