Everyone knows we need a good diet and regular exercise. The USDA still uses a version of the food pyramid to teach children about nutrition in schools and gym classes to (hopefully) impart wisdom about the importance of exercise. Sleep is not only equally as important but is the foundation on which these two pillars of health rest.
Yet in the public eye, sleep is given short shrift. Culturally we equate sleeping in with the sin of being lazy. “Get up, you lazy bones!” We goad people who prioritize their sleep. “What, you’re going to sleep this early? Stay out with us!” As employers, we look down on employees who say they were late because they slept in or who go home early to prioritize sleep. And as employees, we judge each other with the same critical eye. In the privacy of our minds, many of us feel sleep is a time-wasting burden.
Sleep Is the Foundation of Health
Many people collapse into bed at the end of the day the same way they collapse when they drink too much alcohol or take a Benadryl. But sleep is not the same as losing consciousness. When a sedative knocks you over, your brain enters a state of low activity.
Sleep, on the other hand, is a specific biological process by which our brains switch over from “wakefulness” to two sleep cycles: NREM and REM sleep. Each sleep cycle performs critical functions for the brain. These include, but are not limited to: Consolidating memories, crystalizing our ability to speak and move our body, flushing toxic chemicals from the brain, enabling our immune system, mastering skills of any kind, and keeping our hearts beating properly, and more. Every activity of the body is influenced by sleep.
When we read about the health benefits and drawbacks of various things, it’s easy to trivialize these things. Everything has a health claim these days. But the immense value of sleep is not merely a benefit. It’s necessary for life itself.
There exist people with a rare genetic disorder that blocks their ability to sleep. People with this condition lose their ability to sleep in midlife, being taken first by intermittent insomnia, then constant insomnia, then losing the ability to sleep altogether. The progression of the condition resembles dementia, except that it progresses to fatality over a mere few months.
Make no mistake: Sleeping properly every night is critical for good health.
You Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep
Not only is sleep critical for good health, but losing sleep even a few nights in a row has consequences. Ninety-nine of the human population requires eight hours of sleep every night.¹ Losing even an hour of that sleep most days of the week causes memory loss, cognitive decline, fatigue, weight gain, anxiety, depression, and a host of other maladies.
Of special importance during a pandemic is immune function. Losing sleep compromises your immune system. People who are sleep-deprived get sick more often and stay sick for longer. For some people who get COVID, getting enough sleep can mean the difference between life and death.
What’s more, most people aren’t aware they’re losing sleep. In experimental studies where scientists deprived participants of an hour or two of sleep each night — compared to a control population that got eight hours — the sleep-deprived population routinely did demonstrably worse on tests of ability. But the sleep-deprived population did not know! They rated their performance similarly to the performance of the well-slept population and did not report experiencing any fatigue or delays despite hard evidence to the contrary.
The implication for us is clear. Lack of sleep makes us perform worse, even if we’re not aware.
Because most people aren’t aware they’re losing sleep, they aren’t aware their problems are caused by sleep. Every year, millions of children are diagnosed with developmental delays that might be due to simple sleep deprivation. Millions of Americans take medication for hypertension that could be treated by simply getting enough sleep every night. Millions of people consider themselves forgetful or clumsy when they could be suffering from a lack of sleep. You get the idea.
These delays are annoying at the workplace or at home, but they can be deadly on the road. Studies show drivers who are driving even a few hours past their typical bedtime are as bad as drunk drivers. Someone dies in an accident from sleep-deprived driving once every hour.
Combine alcohol and sleep deprivation, the way many people do when they drive home at 1 a.m. on a Friday night, and the combined effects are catastrophic. Alcohol and sleep deprivation together exponentially increases the dangers of driving. Next time you’re tired, don’t stay behind the wheel. Pull over and sleep.
How to Get Good Sleep
You can determine whether you are one of the many, many sleep-deprived people in America using these two rules of thumb, taken from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker:
- “First, after waking up in the morning, could you fall back asleep at ten or eleven a.m.? If the answer is “yes,” you are likely not getting sufficient sleep quantity and/or quality.”
- “Second, can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the answer is “no,” then you are most likely self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.”
If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be that you should wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends. Modern humans evolved to wake up and go to sleep with the sun, which rises and sets at the same time every day. Sleeping in on the weekends feels fun, but staying up late is depriving you of sleep all the same.
Another great rule to follow is to avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon. Caffeine keeps you awake, but it doesn’t eliminate your biological need for sleep. Much like how alcohol makes you thirsty and cold even if you feel sated and warm, caffeine makes you tired even though you feel awake. Caffeine can stay in the body for up to six hours, so consuming any caffeine later than 2 p.m. means you won’t be able to sleep when it’s time. (If you can eschew caffeine altogether, all the better).
Evening light also disrupts your ability to sleep. Most of us are already aware blue light disrupts the circadian rhythm, so we turn Night Shift on for our Apple devices and use applications like f.lux for Android and PC environments. But any evening light is a problem, no matter how red. In the wild, it’s pitch dark after sundown, and our wild bodies aren’t expecting artificial light from lightbulbs, screens, and modern appliances. If you have the means, buy smart bulbs for your house and configure them to grow dim as the sun goes down. The dimmer your nighttime lighting, the better.
It’s Time We Start Respecting Sleep
As a society, we can begin to respect sleep. We can view coworkers who come in a little late or go home early as responsible people who care for their health, not slackers who don’t get the job done. We can let family and friends sleep when we find them napping on the couch or too sleepy to participate in activities.
Children and teens have differing sleep needs we can also respect. Children need ten to twelve hours of sleep a night, so we can make sure children are allowed to take naps when they need. Teenagers only need eight, but their circadian rhythm is configured to need those eight hours at dramatically different times of day. Teenagers are biologically wired to wake up much later and stay up much later than the rest of the population. Yes, they’re literally wired that way. We can respect their sleep needs by letting them sleep in and stay up late. Better yet, we can move school start times for high school.
In the developed world we well understand how important a healthy diet and regular exercise is to our general health. Sleep, on the other hand, is usually cast to the side as an unfortunately necessary annoyance. But sleep is a biological necessity.
The consequences of missing out on sleep can be dire. People who routinely miss large amounts of sleep can suffer catastrophic health problems. Even missing a few hours on the regular can disrupt your ability to lead a normal life. Many sleep problems routinely get misdiagnosed as other chronic health conditions.
Prioritize your sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night. Don’t try to sleep with caffeine in your system, as you’ll stay awake, and don’t try to sleep with alcohol or medications, as they don’t induce true sleep cycles. Turn off screens an hour before bed and dim the lights in your home. It’s no fun to head to bed so early when experience tells you there are so many more fun things to do, but you’ll be glad you did.
All scientific claims in this article from "Why We Sleep" by Dr. Matthew Walker