Remember how when you were young you used to resist going to bed? Being made to go to sleep when the ‘grown-ups’ were still up seemed deeply unfair and very unappealing. Where do we go when we’re asleep? What do we do? Do we have to go there? And are we definitely coming back? To a child, this strange journey into our inner world raises all sorts of concerns …
But now you’re an adult, you’ve obviously learned to accept ‘bedtime’ without questioning it - unless, that is, you’re among the growing group of sleep procrastinators
. Potentially representing more than 40% of people in the West, this group is characterised by their child-like reluctance to retire for the night. Despite the consequences, they insist on putting off the time they go to bed, deliberately ignoring the messages their bodies are sending. Why do they behave in such an immature way? Scientists are currently pondering this question1-2
, but if the procrastinators are to be believed, it’s because they want to squeeze the absolute maximum out of their day. They constantly feel as if they’re running out of time to the point where they’re prepared to sacrifice part of their sleep. In reality, their behaviour may not be completely within their control: recent studies suggest that it could be a sign of addiction caused by excitement-, stimulation- and information-overload3
The ‘just one more episode’ syndrome
The victims of this strange affliction have no idea just how much a chronic lack of sleep may be damaging their health. They think their ‘sleep-resistance’ simply results in them feeling tired, a consequence they’re prepared to accept, while in actual fact, all of the body’s biochemical and physiological functions are profoundly affected: the immune system4-5
(including a decrease in lymphocytes), protection against ageing6
, increased risk of metabolic disorders7
, and above all, healthy brain function8
This restorative effect on the central nervous system is probably the most important function of all. Over the long-term, too little sleep, or poor quality sleep, is highly likely to impair your thinking and learning skills, your creativity, as well as your memorising, analytical and decision-making abilities9-10
. In short, everything that makes you who you are
. Which explains why those who don’t get enough sleep appear to be in a slow decline …
The importance of dreams in slow-wave (non-REM) sleep
It’s well-established that sleep helps restore countless biochemical and physiological processes (it regulates synaptic plasticity which is altered during wakefulness, it repairs damaged tissue, and it relaxes nerve connections). What’s less well-known is that dreams also help boost our cognitive ability.
If you find this hard to believe, the results of a study involving the classic game Tetris should convince you. Subjects were asked to spend several hours a day, over three consecutive days, playing this dynamic puzzle which requires concentration, speed and dexterity. During the three corresponding nights, researchers subsequently woke the participants some minutes after they had fallen asleep and asked them if images from the game had featured in their dreams. Most of them confirmed that they had indeed dreamt about Tetris
. In these dreams, they were not holding the controller in their hands, nor were they being asked to play; they simply dreamt of the pieces in the game which rotate and slot perfectly into each other12
Why do you think this happened? Well the dreams that occur at the start of sleep (during the N1 and N2 phases of light sleep) are not narrative or emotional in nature: they involve elements and experiences of everyday life. If you spend your day doing calculations, you will spend part of your night with those same calculations. If you learn a new activity, you’ll continue the learning process when you close your eyes - without even realising it! In other words, you continue to learn and improve while you are asleep. The body has found a way of exploiting to the maximum the time needed for the recovery and repair of our cells and physiological systems.
The brain carries on practising while we’re asleep
Though this characteristic has long been under-estimated, it was clearly demonstrated in a study of several weeks in which volunteers were asked to spend their evenings learning a new manual activity (requiring coordination and dexterity) before they went to bed. It was an activity which involved highly specific areas of the brain located in the right parietal lobe. The researchers then recorded the participants’ brain activity during their slow-phase sleep and found that the areas of the brain engaged during learning were reactivated, as if the subjects were continuing to learn while they slept.
But what followed was even more amazing
. In comparing the volunteers’ performance before and after sleep, the researchers found significant improvements after eight hours’ sleep. And the more the areas of the brain were reactivated during sleep, the greater the improvements in the volunteers’ performance when they woke. In other words, the more the participants relived the experience of their learning, the greater their mastery of the activity.
In order to be sure it was definitely the sleep which was responsible for the improvements, and not simply the hours between the pre- and post-sleep measuring of their performance, the researchers repeated the experiment in the morning. The volunteers began their new activity in the morning, and were then asked to perform it again in the middle of the afternoon. This time, no improvements were observed. It therefore seems that improved performance follows a good night’s sleep, and more specifically, the reliving of the day’s experiences in our dreams.
So this ‘journey’, which occupies more than a third of our existence, not only serves to restore our cells, defence systems and various organs, it also makes us more effective in all our everyday activities. It thus makes our lives easier and helps bring out the best in us.
And for this reason, it deserves to be high on our list of priorities.
. This doesn’t mean resorting to sleeping pills, which have disastrous effects on the quality of sleep, but instead following these simple and manageable tips:
- Increase your everyday level of physical activity13.
- Ensure your evening meal includes foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid (also present in the supplement L-Tryptophan) which promotes drowsiness14.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night.
- Avoid looking at blue light screens in the evening15. Studies clearly show that these screens inhibit the secretion of melatonin, a hormone produced during the hours of darkness which promotes sleep. The good news, however, is that plant sources such as fennel and linseed contain small amounts of melatonin, though to benefit fully from its sleep-inducing properties, it’s better to take a good melatonin supplement16.
- Take advantage of gentle products such as Natural Sleep Formula containing plant extracts (valerian, hop, California poppy, rhodiola) which offer proven benefits for managing sleep17, or a blend of the best essential oils for encouraging sleep18 such as Relaxing Oil Blend.
According to the old adage, it’s always a good idea ‘to sleep on it’. In fact, we would go one further: sleep makes us better. And if you’re wondering whether you too are a sleep procrastinator, if at least two of the following statements apply to you, the answer is a definite yes:
1. Floor M Kroese, Catharine Evers, Marieke A Adriaanse, Denise TD de Ridder, Bedtime procrastination: A self-regulation perspective on sleep insufficiency in the general population, Journal of Health Psychology, Vol 21, Issue 5, pp. 853 – 862.
- I always go to bed later than planned.
- I only go to bed early when I absolutely have to get up early.
- I often find things to do when bedtime comes around.
- Even when I’m in bed, I find a way of putting off going to sleep by reading my emails or surfing the net on my tablet.
- I would really like to go to bed early but somehow never manage to.
2. Kroese FM, de Ridder DTD, Evers C, et al. (2014) Bedtime procrastination: Introducing a new area of procrastination. Frontiers in Psychology 5: 611
3. Steel P (2007) The nature of procrastination: A metaanalytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin 133: 65–94.
4. Zielinski MR, Krueger JM. Sleep and innate immunity. Front Biosci (Schol Ed). 2011 Jan 1;3:632-42.
5. Imeri L, Opp MR. How (and why) the immune system makes us sleep. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 Mar;10(3):199-210. doi: 10.1038/nrn2576. Epub 2009 Feb 11.
6. June C, Kep Kee Loh, Hui Zheng, Michael W.L. Chee et al. Sleep Duration and Age-Related Changes in Brain Structure and Cognitive Performance. Sleep. 2014 Jul 1;37(7):1171-8. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3832.
7. Eve Van Cauter, Karine Spiegel, Esra Tasali and Rachel Leproulta. Metabolic consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Med. 2008 Sep; 9(0 1): S23–S28. doi: 10.1016/S1389-9457(08)70013-3
8. Cirelli C. Sleep and synaptic changes. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2013 Oct; 23(5): 841–846. Published online 2013 Apr 23. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2013.04.001
9. Gohar A, Adams A, Gertner E, et al. (2009) Working memory capacity is decreased in sleep-deprived internal medicine residents. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 5: 191–197
10. Harrison Y and Horne JA (2000) The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6: 236–249
11. Erin J. Wamsley, and Robert Stickgold. Memory, Sleep and Dreaming: Experiencing Consolidation. Sleep Med Clin. 2011 Mar 1; 6(1): 97–108.
12. Erin J. Wamsley, Matthew Tucker, Jessica D. Payne, Joseph Benavides and Robert Stickgold. Dreaming of a Learning Task is Associated with Enhanced Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation. Curr Biol. 2010 May 11; 20(9): 850–855. Published online 2010 Apr 22. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.027
13. Lang C, Kalak N, Brand S, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Pühse U, Gerber M. The relationship between physical activity and sleep from mid adolescence to early adulthood. A systematic review of methodological approaches and meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2016 Aug;28:32-45. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2015.07.004. Epub 2015 Aug 5.
14. Trisha A. Jenkins, Jason C. D. Nguyen, Kate E. Polglaze, and Paul P. Bertrand. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients. 2016 Jan; 8(1): 56. doi: 10.3390/nu8010056
15. Anne-Marie Changa, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne F. Duffy, and Charles A. Czeisler, Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. 1232–1237 | PNAS | January 27, 2015, vol. 112. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1232.
16. Eduardo Ferracioli-Oda, Ahmad Qawasmi, et Michael H. Bloch, « Meta-Analysis: Melatonin for the Treatment of Primary Sleep Disorders », PloS One 8, no 5 (2013): e63773, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063773.
17. Michael Yurcheshen, Martin Seehuus, and Wilfred Pigeon, Updates on Nutraceutical Sleep Therapeutics and Investigational Research, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015; 2015: 105256. doi: 10.1155/2015/105256.
18. Hwang E, Shin S. The effects of aromatherapy on sleep improvement: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Feb;21(2):61-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2014.0113. Epub 2015 Jan 1