The Early Bird Catches the Health

Last week, scientist at Bristol University found that women who are early risers are 40-48% less likely to develop breast cancer. This finding adds to other previous research which suggested that women who work night shifts had higher rates of cancer. So, what is happening at night when we sleep that is lowering our risk of getting cancer?

Biological housekeeping!

Just like how we have to do our daily housekeeping like washing the dishes and emptying the bins to prevent the house from looking like a tip, we have to do the same with the body. There are certain biological processes that take place while we sleep so when our sleep is disrupted, or we don’t get enough of it, we forego some of this basic maintenance that our body needs and over time, this can lead to ill health.

Sleep can be grouped into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. Deep sleep is non-REM sleep. Scientists generally say that deep sleep restores the body and REM sleep restores the mind. You enter REM sleep 3-5 times a night or about every 90 minutes which is the length of one sleep cycle and we have several cycles in the night.

If you don’t sleep for long enough, you can see how you will wake up grumpy if instead of five REMs you only had two. Your mind will not be in tip top shape for that presentation to your boss that you have been stressing about. Also, if you don’t have enough deep sleep, then your body is not fully restored, and you find yourself dragging your sorry behind through the day because you are simply knackered.

I’m not going to get all nerdy on you with the science about sleep but if you want to find out more, there is a brilliant article ‘The Biology of Sleep’ which should satisfy the nerds that read this blog.

Now we have done the western science, let’s go East. According to Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine; there are two 12-hour cycles that makes up the day and night which are further divided into 3 cycles of 4 hours each. The 4 hourly cycles are linked to specific bodily functions. The recommended hours for sleep are between 10/11pm to 6/7am. Below are the 4 hourly cycles in that sleep window and the associated bodily functions:

10:00pm – 02:00am    Digestive system and Metabolism
02:00am – 06:00am    Nervous system
06:00am – 10:00am    Immunity and Structural strength

The Chinese system gets even more granular. According to Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM), qi flows through specific organs at specific times which allows those organs to perform their self-care and self-regulation. This is a 24-hour cycle. Below are which organs are at work in the typical 10/11pm to 6/7am sleep window:

9pm-11pm    Metabolism and blood vessels
11pm-1am    Gallbladder
1am-3am      Liver
3am-5am      Lung
5am-7am      Large Intestine

Suffice to say, regardless of which system of medicine you subscribe to, be it Western, Ayurveda or Chinese, there are maintenance systems at work while we sleep that we need to respect if we want to live a healthy life.

For years I convinced myself I was not a morning person. To be fair even though I now wake up early (6.00am) every day regardless of whether it is the weekend or not, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a morning person. I will happily not speak to anyone for up to 4 hours after waking up if I had a choice. It is not because I am grumpy or anything, I just would rather not engage in social interactions in the morning. It took my husband years to get used to this, and frankly speaking I’m not sure he is used to it. Some people just wake up ready to engage with the world, I am not one of them, but I digress.

I used to blame my lack of vivaciousness in the mornings to not being a morning person so I never bothered to wake up early if I could help it. But, when I found myself clutching 14 symptoms at Harley Street, I changed my lifestyle dramatically as outlined in my book ‘Octopus on a Treadmill; Women, Success, Health, Happiness’. Part of the change in lifestyle was to set myself a bedtime and stick it to allow me to have eight hours sleep every night. To make this happen, I couldn’t go to bed late anymore so I set my bedtime at 10.00pm which meant that I was up by 6.00am most mornings. This meant I wasn’t knackered and bad tempered in the mornings. I now wake up rested and ready to tackle my day. I am still not singing in the shower mind you, but now I know the benefit to my energy levels and health of having a set bedtime that allows my body to do the daily routine maintenance that it needs.

I used to think I needed willpower to wake up when my alarm went off, but it has nothing to do with willpower. If you have given yourself enough hours of sleep, then barring any underlying health issues, most of the time you will wake up before your alarm and you will not be yanked out of the deep sleep. Your circadian rhythms will see to that.

Am I surprised to hear that women who wake up early have lower risk of breast cancer? No. In fact they reduce their risk of most diseases as their bodies get a chance to re-calibrate while they sleep. Now that we have the science, I hope most people will prioritise their sleep over watching TV or staying on social media when it is time to go to sleep. Whenever I am tempted to stay up late, I always think of how I will feel in the morning and that normally does it for me.

Sleep is self-care and self-care is a responsibility. You owe it to your loved ones to take care of yourself.