I know you. You sleep four or five hours a night, and feel accomplished because in the crazy, hectic, busy world you inhabit, sleeping less is one way to do more of the many tasks on your to-do list. I know this because I lived it. For several years, (OK, it was more like decades) I thought I was doing really well if I slept five hours a night. If I could have folded laundry, written a chapter of my dissertation and slept at the same time I would have. I was the queen of multitasking. The news on multitasking is not good either, but that is for another day. Today we need to talk about sleep. Your sleep. My sleep. American’s collective lack of sleep.
Since quitting my job as a college professor, giving up the big house and working for myself, I have started sleeping more. This was not intentional. I really didn’t believe I needed more sleep, I was doing well and accomplishing a lot. As a consequence of no longer having to get up at 5: 30 in the morning I naturally began to sleep more. I started going to bed when I was tired and getting up when I woke up. I started sleeping seven to eight hours a night. I haven’t had this much sleep since I was a child.
The results shocked me, and made me rethink my sleeping habits. In a distorted self- haze, I had been smugly proud of my ability to function so well on so little sleep. Now I am horrified.
The first unexpected sign that I was getting enough sleep is that I started dreaming again. I have vivid, action packed dreams. I had not dreamed in years. To tell you the truth, I had kind of forgotten about dreams. Maybe I thought you no longer dreamed as you got older. I never consciously missed dreaming, never discussed it, never gave it much thought at all. When my dreams returned it surprised me. I hadn’t realized that dreams are important until I rediscovered them.
What is happening in the brain when we dream and remember those dreams is the same activity that occurs when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake. Dreams are connected to the same parts of the brain that are responsible for moving our ideas from short-term to long-term memory. The more we use the neurological pathways in our brain, the stronger they are. Pathways we neglect are pruned away. The bottom line? Lack of sleep impacts your ability to remember what you experienced during the day. Dreams help you to learn and remember better.
Lack of sleep also affects our ability to control our emotions. Scientists at Berkeley found that reduction in REM sleep negatively impacts our ability to understand and deal with emotions. Think of the toddler who has a melt down before a nap. The same thing is happening to you. Your ability to recognize emotions and handle them appropriately is diminished when you lack sleep. Moody? Anxious? Irritable? Angry ? Crying? Depressed? You may need sleep more than medication.
Sleep is also connected to weight gain. Consciously or not, when we are tired, we look to food to give us energy. Our metabolism doesn’t function properly when we are sleep deprived. Our bodies produce more ghrelin, a hormone that tells us when to eat. We produce less leptin, a hormone that tells us to stop eating. The stress hormone cortisol increases, which makes us less sensitive to insulin, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, a growing concern in America today. Another negative effect of Cortisol is that it breaks down skin collagen, making our skin dull and less elastic, leading to more wrinkles.
Still not convinced? Sleep deprivation affects nearly all aspects of our lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that fatigue causes more than 100,000 accidents each year. Sleep deprivation causes lower energy, lower libido and less testosterone, reducing our sex drive. Sleep deprivation is also connected to increased cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes. People who sleep enough live longer.
It is time to rethink our relationship with sleep. We have been fooling ourselves thinking that we are accomplishing more and somehow defeating biology. We have put ourselves and others at risk. We have traded quantity of waking moments for quality of life.
Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honor.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with sleep.”