Ponce de Leon is well known as the Spanish explorer that searched for the fountain of youth in the early 1500s. Even today, that search continues through the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry, plastic surgery procedures, and nutritional products. Anti-aging medicine even has a certifying organization for doctors. Some experts are even claiming that they can reverse the aging process.
Knowing what we know about the importance of sleep and the havoc it can cause on your body, I can confidently say that the best way to slow down aging is to optimize your sleep quality. Sleep is known to be vital in tissue healing and regeneration, hormone regulation, as well as in helping to consolidate memories and thought processes. For example, non-REM deep sleep is important for tissue repair, growth hormone release, and other regenerative processes. REM sleep is needed for memory consolidation and creativity.
When most people read or hear about better sleep, they think about going to bed earlier or sleeping longer. People with insomnia are also inundated with “warm milk” recommendations, such as valerian, green tea, turkey, melatonin, meditation, and probably dozens of other vitamins, supplements, or relaxation techniques that help to calm or numb the mind to allow for faster sleep onset. Many of these options can work to various degrees, but won’t be helpful at all if you stop breathing at night. Once your breathing passageways obstruct while sleeping, you have to wake up. You can either wake up violently in a state of panic with sweating and your heart racing, or just get taken out of deep sleep into a lighter stage of sleep.
About 1-2 times per month, I see women who complain of various ear, nose or throat symptoms, let’s say for about 6 weeks. They also usually complains of increased fatigue, headaches, and poor sleep. They usually see their medical doctors and have tried multiple courses of antibiotics or allergy medications. They will typically say that they sleep on their backs when questioned about their preferred sleep position. Looking at their oral cavity exam, I don’t believe them. When questioned further, they all admit that they used to be stomach sleepers, but changed to back sleeping after reading an articles on various magazines, usually by a dermatologist (or sometimes a chiropractor) that recommends avoiding stomach sleeping since it can cause facial wrinkles. Almost every time, their health problems began just after they made the switch in their sleep position. Once they go back to their normal sleep position, their health problems usually resolve.
The cosmetics industry’s fight against facial wrinkles is a classic example our quest to delay aging. In the above example, the reason why some people have to sleep on their stomachs is so that they can breathe properly. Being on their backs causes the tongue to fall back due to gravity, and when in deep sleep, it relaxes completely, leading to obstruction and arousal. Having smaller jaws and dental crowding can aggravate this problem even more. Not getting sufficient amounts of deep sleep causes a generalized state of physiologic stress and adrenaline production, which tends to constrict blood vessels that supply certain parts of the body that are considered “unessential” when you’re under stress. This includes your digestive system, your reproductive organs, as well as your skin. Not receiving proper circulation deprives the tissues of oxygen, preventing proper nutrition and not allowing for healing, regeneration, and waste removal. Hypoxia also creates an environment that’s toxic to the local tissues, leading to further damage and accelerated aging. The bottom line is that not getting good sleep accelerates your aging process.
Another important concept that has profound implications is the fact that underdevelopment of the bony midface and jaw structures leads to wrinkles earlier in life. Having smaller facial bony structures does not stretch the facial skin over the bones as much compared to larger facial structures. Since elastic properties of facial skin tend to degrade over time, having smaller facial bones allows wrinkles to show up earlier, with the same degree of environmental, dietary, or genetic factors.
Two common habits that are thought to accelerate aging and even wrinkles are sun tanning and smoking. Sun tanning may make you look “healthy” temporarily, but sun damage takes a toll on your skin, especially if you’re susceptible to the sleep-breathing problems that I describe. Imagine if you already have diminished circulation to the skin, with diminished levels of oxygen. By definition, you’ll have more levels of oxidative stress, where free-radical oxygen molecules are formed, which can damage DNA. Add ionizing radiation, and it’s a double whammy.
Nicotine is a known stimulant which also has been proven to constrict blood vessels, especially in the skin. It also has a calming effect the way Ritalin helps to calm children with ADHD: Stimulants help to counteract the effects of sleep deprivation from not breathing well at night. It’s also been shown that it takes nicotine about 45 seconds to reach the brain once you inhale smoke into your lungs. This doesn’t make any sense, since most smokers will tell you that they feel more relaxed after the first one or two breaths. What’s making smokes relaxed is the relaxing properties of deep breathing, along with the stimulating effects of nicotine. But by relaxing more using deep breathing techniques to inhale a stimulant, you’re cutting off blood flow to your skin, which if already sun damaged, is more likely to suffer from wrinkles.
The basic thesis of my sleep-breathing paradigm states that all modern humans stop breathing once is a while. But as we get older, not only do we sag on the outside, but also on the inside. If you think about it, the rate at which we age is directly proportional to how narrow your upper airway gets. Add to this additional gravity and the typical weight gain that tends to occur during middle age, it’s no wonder so many people have sleep-breathing problems as we all get older. We’ll never run out of more pills, gadgets, devices and diets that tout their anti-aging properties, but without addressing how well you breathe while sleeping, you’ll continue to suffer from accelerated aging.
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