Our lives are busy, from working a full-time job, taking care of ourselves and our families, going to the gym, cooking, cleaning, somehow making time for fun, it is exhausting! When do we sleep? Is sleep even that important? “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” seems to be the mantra of everyone, not just the “crazy” youth.
Full-time workers and parents are choosing to stay up late, instead of catching up on their Z’s. But unlike college, where this would be classified as “bad time management,” now it is just life, sacrificing sleep to enjoy even just a few hours of the day outside of our responsibilities.
However, sleep is inherently essential to both our cognitive and physical development and maintenance. When we sleep, our body temperature regulates, melatonin is released, our muscles are relaxed and begin to heal, and even our brain is given rest to think for itself while our consciousness sleeps. Our sleeping consists of 90-minute cycles of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement).
Contrary to popular belief, REM sleep occurs least during the night and is the only time of the night when we dream. REM sleep merely bolsters all the good that happens during NREM. NREM sleep makes up most of the 90-minute cycle and consists of 4 stages, with stages 3 and 4 being the most beneficial to our health. During stages 1 and 2, our bodies cool down, our heart rate regulates, our breathing deepens, and we are prepared for the healing administered during stages 3 and 4. Once we get to stage 3, the sleep is the deepest and most restorative as our blood pressure drops, blood supply increases, tissue growth and repair occur, and all of our necessary hormones are released. After a full 8 hours of sleeping, we will wake up alert, full of serotonin (aka happy), and most of our aches and pains will be gone.
Sounds like a dream come true right?
When was the last time you got eight full hours of sleep? Now we’re lucky to get even 3 hours of undisturbed sleep, and that’s if we can even fall asleep! Falling asleep and maintaining sleep is incredibly difficult in our plugged-in world. Our bodies are programmed to become tired when the sun sets, and it gets dark outside, but with the advent of artificial light and now blue light from cell phones, televisions, and even e-readers, our mind is more awake than ever at the wrong time of day. It’s fine, we tell ourselves, I’ll make up lost sleep on the weekend. Unfortunately, you can’t make up sleep when you’re already sleep-deprived.
Lack of sleep is very dangerous and causes a slew of cognitive impairments as well as physical ones. When we are sleep deprived, we open ourselves up to muscle tearing, weight gain, sleeping disorders, and mental illness. Those who are sleep deprived are more likely to develop heart disease, breathing problems, and have a much higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
In the short term, sleep deprivation affects our perception, motor skills, emotional control, decision making, and memory. Equally, if not more troubling, are the health impacts in the long term. We become more prone to metabolic and endocrine problems, diabetes, we decrease our immune function and could increase the risk of multiple types of cancer. We speed up our cognitive decline and increase the risk of dementia. Lack of sleep has also been proven to be a factor in developing depression and other mental disabilities.
Think back to when you opened your eyes this morning. Did you have an overall feeling of grogginess? The WebMD approved term for this is, Sleep Inertia. Defined as “groggy with a lack of mental clarity,” sleep inertia should dissipate around 15-20 minutes after waking up. The newest trend in our society is “chronic sleep inertia,” sleep inertia that does not disappear and follows us into the early afternoon, causing unpleasant and even dangerous results.
We all want to be productive and effective at what we do. But when we boost productivity by expanding our waking hours, we aren’t helping anyone. We’re putting sleep-deprived people on the road, we’re accelerating our demise mentally and physically, and we’re compromising our responsibilities and capabilities. We are less productive, less insightful, less happy, and more likely to get sick. And most of the time, we don’t even realize how much we’ve hurt ourselves by skimping on our rest. For example, if you sleep six hours a night for twelve days, your cognitive and physical performance becomes practically indistinguishable from that of someone awake for twenty-four hours straight. The kicker? The production of someone awake for twenty-four hours straight is similar to that of someone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.1%.
As a nation, we systematically undervalue sleep, something that is fundamental to our present and future performance. Do yourself a favor, and start sleeping. No one else can do it for you.
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