Sleep Is Under-Rated

“I’m so good at sleeping, I can do it with my eyes closed.”  –anonymous.

“Happiness is waking up, looking at the clock and finding you still have two hours of sleep left.”—Charles Schulz, cartoonist.

“When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap.”—Tom Hodgkinson, British writer.

“I was stressed out and wanted to make everything perfect for the students.  I don’t get much sleep anyway.  It’s really overrated.”  –grade school principal, on getting ready for the new schoolyear.

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Many people wear it like a badge of honor.  Much like “I’m so busy,” many people often like to let others know how much they have to do and how little sleep they get.  It seems, that, as Americans, we value a lot of busy-ness, and not a lot of sleep.  Perhaps that works best for some people, but health experts would likely beg to differ for humans in general.

Sleep is a gift.  When it is done right and in adequate amounts, sleep is restorative, recharging, rejuvenating, refreshing and renewing.  There is no substitute for good sleep—not coffee or an energy drink, not a cold shower, not a rush of adrenaline, not physical activity or telling ourselves we got enough, when we know we did not.

Much like the cleaning crew that comes in the office after closing time and after the lights are out, it is believed in neuroscience that our brain has a cleaning crew that comes in while we sleep.  The brain and spinal cord produce cerebrospinal fluid, which washes in and out like waves during sleep, cleaning the brain and “taking out the garbage” while we sleep.  The “garbage,” in this sense, is accumulated metabolic trash and waste proteins.   If this “garbage” doesn’t get regularly taken out, it accumulates, and slows down our cognitive abilities.  This explains why it is hard to think clearly after sleeping poorly. 

Our immune systems work best when we are rested.  Think of your immune system as an army of soldiers, and if they are rested, they are better able to fend off the attackers. This explains why the age-old advice to “get enough sleep” in order to stay healthy makes sense. 

Long-term sleep deprivation can take a toll not only physically, but mentally as well.  New parents with babies that do not sleep well are very aware of this.  The doctor’s advice to a new mother to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is always good advice.  Stress levels increase with decreased sleep, and if you are a parent, you likely can recall the stress—as well as the over-riding joy—of being a new parent.

One or two nights of poor sleep can be repaired with a good night’s sleep following them.  Extended periods of little or no sleep can make a person feel like they are losing their grip on reality, with hallucinations and other visual misperceptions noted, as well as apathy, disorientation and social withdrawal.  At this point, the deprivation is likely attacking the deep biological functions that control a person’s mental and physical health.

Airline pilots are required to be out of the cockpit for a certain number of hours each day in order to rest.  Truck drivers must log their hours to show they are taking time off for sleep.  These regulations within these professions, as well as others that hold other’s lives in the balance, demonstrate the importance of sleep.  Medical professionals do not typically have the same strict regulations to comply with, but because they make important life-saving decisions for their patients, adequate sleep is of utmost importance for them as well. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some enlightened companies are realizing the power of the nap.  N.A.P.—“Not A Problem.”  There are businesses that have installed “sleeping pods” that allow their employees to nap in order to increase their well-being and productivity.  

Research has shown that relatively short naps are healing and rejuvenating, and do indeed increase mental function.  Naps that stretch for hours are generally not productive, often setting the person back mentally and physically.

The “hunger hormone” ghrelin is produced in the stomach, small intestine pancreas and brain.  Its function is to stimulate appetite, which is necessary to ensure adequate nutrition.  However, research has shown that with a lack of sleep, increased levels of ghrelin are released, and the appetite is overly stimulated. 

It is a common statement from those who sleep very little: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”  This may be funny on the surface, but it neglects the fact that along with other forms of self-care such as eating right, exercising and reducing stress, a lifetime of good sleeping habits will very likely prolong one’s life, with the opposite hastening the end of it. 

Improving one’s sleep patterns is not always an easy thing to do.  However, there are habits that can help to improve sleep quality: 

  • Limit caffeinated beverages as the day progresses, allow time for the caffeine to wear off before bedtime—nothing after 4 pm is a general guideline.
  • Alcohol can also affect one’s sleep.  It may be a relaxant initially, but it can become a stimulant later in the night. 
  • Establish a consistent bedtime and waking time.  This trains the body and brain to continue to complete this pattern.
  • Be aware of screen time before bed.  At least an hour before bedtime, shut down any screens:  phones, computers and televisions.  This unnatural light stimulates the brain to stay awake.  Pick up a book or a magazine instead.
  • Sleeping in the darkest room possible also helps to induce sleep.  Other forms of light also stimulate the brain to stay awake. 
  • Try a new pillow if yours doesn’t feel right.  Often, we get used to a pillow and don’t realize it may not be the most comfortable one for us.
  • Keep the room cool.  The room temperature most optimal for good sleep is between 60-70 degrees.
  • Natural methods such as deep breathing and total body relaxation often help to lull the body to sleep. 
  • Tracking sleep patterns with a tracker worn on the wrist is often very enlightening.  However, when the results begin to dictate how you think you should feel when you wake up, it may be counter-productive.  For example, if you wake up feeling rested, but your sleep tracker reports you didn’t have a good night’s sleep, this information may make you feel tire.  These trackers do indeed provide valuable information, but the best proof is how you feel. 
  • The brain often swims with stressful thoughts when we lay down to sleep.  Writing down these concerns and thoughts just before bed has been show to relax the mind, which, in turn, relaxes the body. 

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Good sleep is a gift.  A gift that we can give ourselves, and is indeed under-rated.