What happens when we sleep

Sleep is a pretty strange thing isn’t it? We just kind of lay down (sometimes we even skip that bit, “on-site”) and drift off to another reality. Imagine you had to explain sleep to an extra-terrestrial, you wouldn’t know where to start. The actual definition is:

A natural periodic state of rest for the mind and body, in which the eyes usually close and consciousness is completely or partially lost, so that there is a decrease in bodily movement and responsiveness to external stimuli.

There you go, next time you have to explain to ET what humans are doing for 6-12 hours every night, you’ve got the script.

But I’m actually not that interested in describing sleep, I care about why we sleep and the processes that go on behind the scenes to get us ready for the next day. Most people agree that it’s important, but I think there are plenty who drastically underestimate just how valuable sleep can be. Our general attitude is that sleep is something we have to do, rather than something we get to do. We accept that it’s important because our bodies get tired at the end of the day, which prompts us to get into bed at night, but how many of us see sleep as an opportunity to become more youthful, more energetic, smarter and even fitter versions of ourselves? That’s exactly what it is, an opportunity to grow and progress and turn all the growth minded things we do during the day into results. I actually think the first step to getting better sleep is to realise its true potential.

If I had to hang my hat on one thing that as an industry we can improve on, it would be the quality of our sleep. We absolutely love a 20 hour day, we love a midweek networking event and an early morning breakfast meeting, it’s random and exciting and no one wants to change that, most of us love events just the way they are. Rightly so, because it takes a special kind of animal to work in this industry and we should be proud of it! But please believe we can navigate things a lot better if we have the right tools and a bit of awareness. I think that getting better quality sleep is a great place to start.

Sleep makes you more youthful

Research has shown that the most rejuvenating hours of sleep are between 22:00-00:00, which is when we produce the most growth hormone (GH). Yes! The same GH that is often taken as a performance enhancing drug. It massively accelerates repair and regeneration of body tissues, which enhances recovery from strenuous training and exercise, hence why certain athletes have been known to take it. That’s also why it’s nicknamed the ‘youth hormone’ because it keeps our tissues in great condition, which includes our skin, muscles, neural tissue and much more. Our bodies produce this naturally, especially while we sleep and especially in the early hours, but the key to getting the most benefit is to get to bed earlier. If you’re awake later than 22:00 you start missing out on some of the advantages of getting great sleep, including higher doses of the youth hormone itself.

Even more importantly than this (or maybe even because of this), people who sleep more tend to have longer telomeres. Without getting too science-y, telomere length is the most reliable biological indicator of how old we are, they effectively keep our DNA intact (imagine the plastic things that keep the ends of your shoelaces together) and without them things start to unravel. The longer our telomeres, the longer we have before age related diseases begin to take hold.

So sleep is directly correlated to our biological age. This has nothing to do with the number we say when someone asks “how old are you?”, this is about how old our bodies are and we have the power to keep this number much lower than the calendar would have us believe.

Sleep affects your fat

Yeah I said it, I know fat loss is a subject that tends to attract bold and often unsubstantiated claims – usually when someone’s trying to sell you something – but there’s actually science behind this one and I’m definitely not selling anything. Fat loss is fundamentally controlled by our hormones, which are basically just chemical messages sent to our cells so they know what they should be doing. Sleep affects our hormone function more so than any other activity, including diet and exercise. One night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin resistant as a type-2 diabetic. That means blood pressure goes up, the brain doesn’t get fuelled properly, we begin to crave carbohydrates and sugary foods and we become really good at storing fat. That’s just after one night!

A study from the University of Chicago found that body composition is directly affected by the number of hours of sleep we get. Subjects were given the exact same diet, those who slept 8.5 hours per night lost 55% more body fat than counterparts who slept 5.5 hours per night. Another study tracked subjects over a 5 year period but did not give any specific dietary or exercise protocol. They found that subjects who slept less than 6 hours per night had a 32% gain in their visceral fat, whereas subjects who slept more than 6 hours only gained 13% over the 5 year period.

Sleep makes you smarter

During sleep we lay down a substance called myelin, this is like the tarmac on which our neural messages travel and the more myelin that’s laid, the smoother the road. So our neural messages become more efficient when we sleep well. We also process memories when we sleep, short term memories get converted to long term memories. Makes you realise that all those ‘all-nighters’ at university during exam season probably weren’t the best idea! It’s the same in the real world, especially in events! How much stuff do we have to remember? Working on a problem late into the night is very rarely a necessity and it would be way easier to solve after a few sleep cycles. We’ve all had that experience where we wake up in the morning and all of a sudden we know the solution to a problem that was bugging us all day. Part of the reason for that is our brain detoxes while we sleep. The Glymphatic system is our brain’s mechanism for removing waste and this system is 10 times more active during sleep than when we are awake. Remember the time you said “I’ve got really bad brain fog”? That’s a real thing and it’s only cleared up when we sleep.

There’s some of the benefits, but you’re probably wondering what you can do to actually make sure you’re sleeping better. I know sleep comes naturally to some people and it’s the hardest thing in the world for others, but I promise no matter how well you sleep normally, you’ll be able to improve even more with some of these tips.

Pro tips for better sleep

Develop a sleep routine

If we send consistent signals at certain times of the day or night, our internal systems will adapt to those signals. It’s why we get hungry at 8:00, 12:00 and 19:00 every day, because that’s when we are used to eating food so our bodies recognise the pattern. It’s also why we are taught to give babies a bath, put their PJs on and feed them a bottle x-number of hours before bed, so their little bodies start preparing for sleep. For some reason, when we grow into big bodies we think we’re too smart for all that and just expect to be able to drop off at the moment we decide to get into bed. Well most of us will agree that’s just not how it works, we have all laid there awake for hours struggling to switch off. Part of that is because we are not preparing ourselves properly for optimal sleep and the preparation for a good night of sleep starts the moment you wake up in the morning.

Get back to nature

Since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we found a way to fabricate daylight and subsequently decided that we would stay up as late as we want, but when humans first started roaming the earth millions of years ago we were designed to be part of nature, which meant that when the earth got dark, we naturally got ready for sleep. We might’ve found ways to hack the system but that doesn’t change the fact that our biology is linked to nature. Our hormones are released in varied amounts to get us ready for the beginning, middle and end of the day. If we tamper with these natural rhythms through misuse of modern technologies and other indulgencies at the wrong times, our bodies don’t know if they are coming or going. This can really knock us out of sync and lead to a spiral of progressively poor sleep and a host of negative health side-effects. Try to realign your sleep routine with the clues nature is giving us, I’m not saying go to bed at 17:00 in the winter when it gets dark, but whenever possible try to reduce your exposure to artificial lights and tech-devices later in the evening. Let your body adapt naturally to the world we live in, you’ll find it much easier to get to sleep this side of midnight and to develop a consistent sleep schedule. We are habitual creatures, so when a huge event comes along and disrupts our sleep for a few days, if we already have a built in bedtime, it will be so much easier to start getting great sleep again once you’ve knocked that event out the park.

Make your bedroom a bedroom

The bedroom is not a dining room or an office or a cinema and we shouldn’t treat it like it is. I mentioned before that we are habitual creatures, our bodies recognise patterns in our behaviour and our environment, without us having to consciously think about it. So if we are in the habit of sitting in bed responding to emails late into the evening, every time we enter the bedroom we subconsciously recognise this pattern and prepare for the expected behaviour. Given that writing emails is an activity that elevates cortisol, this is not a behaviour we want our body to associate with the place where we sleep. This doesn’t just apply to the stress of emails, any device that produces artificial light will supress melatonin and elevate cortisol, having a negative impact on sleep quality. One study found that shining a laser the size of an LED on the back of subjects’ knee caps reduced sleep quality by up to 40%, compared with subjects sleeping in complete darkness. Our skin detects light and initiates a hormonal response through photoreceptors the same way our eyes do, so closing your eyes doesn’t necessarily make it dark. Technology of any kind has no place in the bedroom and if we want to create the best environment for sleep, it’s a really good idea to try break the habits that involve the use of technology in the bedroom.

Ok let’s be real for a second, there are so many things in this world that make it hard for us to look after our health. It’s never been a walk in the park and it never will be, all we can really do is try to understand our environment and how it’s impacting our health. We are playing catch up with a lot of this stuff, I mean take wireless signals for example they were only invented 30 years ago. It will be centuries before we fully understand how they affect us, our biology is just too complicated. There’s hundreds of things that interact with us in ways we don’t fully understand, GMOs and pesticides in our food supply, chlorine in our tap water, smoking, pollution, alcohol, bacon, plastic bottles, the list is endless. But there are also a full spectrum of things that support our health and we can choose to create habits around those too. Sleep isn’t talked about as often as exercise and nutrition, but it’s without doubt one of the most important cornerstones of health. Without good sleep, food and exercise stuff will have no impact. Consider a three legged table where sleep, exercise and nutrition are the legs, if you take one away the whole thing falls down.

No one is perfect, we are in a tough industry and sometimes it’s almost impossible to prioritise these things. That’s why it’s so important to create good habits when we get the chance to do so. Hopefully some of these tips will help you get the ball rolling.




Director of Boulevard Events, multi-award winning family catering company, Mark Maher comes from a family of food and catering entrepreneurs and spent most of his youth hanging around the kitchen in our family restaurant ‘Boulevard.’ After school he worked full-time as a Chef for Boulevard Catering before attending University to study another passion, Sports Science.

It was there he found a passion for health and human performance and spent a decade trying to improve his own health and wellbeing, dedicating most of his spare time to learning what he could about nutrition, exercise and sleep. A strong advocate for health he tries to help others, where possible, to take better care of themselves. When not doing that, he’s running the family events catering company with his brothers and sister.

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