Not sleeping is killing you

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Our personal health depends on learning how to rest

We need more sleep

I am up early almost every morning. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that we have two dogs who can’t hold their bladders much past four in the morning. If I don’t want to clean dog pee off the carpet, I have to let them out. The second reason, though, is that the quiet of the morning is the best time of day for me to get writing done. My mind is reasonably fresh, creativity and thought both seem to flow well, and there aren’t too many distractions.

The downside of getting up so early is that it throws off my body’s relationship to the traditional workday. If I’m up at four, then I’m ready for lunch by eight, nine at the latest. That lull in energy you get right after lunch? Mine hits about 10 and if I’m not doing something that requires physical effort I’m going to have difficulty keeping my eyes open. While everyone else seems to be running around until 11 at night or so, my bedtime is 9:30 PM and anything past that stretches the limits of my already fragile sanity. I would have a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) if I wasn’t too tired to care.

As a society, we have a lot of problems with sleep. That’s not necessarily our fault, though. Approximately 22 million people suffer from sleep apnea, a condition that makes contiguous sleep difficult-to-impossible and can be deadly in extreme situations (source). A whole host of other health-related issues such as heart issues, weight, diabetes, emotional issues, attention-deficit, and autistic-spectrum disorders can all factor in our difficulty with sleeping (source). This time of year can be especially difficult when the adjustment away from Daylight Savings Time messes with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Most people adjust within a day or so but some people take a lot longer (source).

There are also those people who claim they don’t need much sleep. The current US president is one of those people, claiming he only sleeps three to four hours a night (no comment on how frequently he naps during the day). Others who say they get by on little sleep include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, fashion designer Tom Ford, Martha Stewart, Barak Obama, and former Disney CEO Bob Iger (source). Some, like Ford, claim they have too much energy to sleep. Others say there’s simply too much work to leave any time for sleep. 

But are we doing ourselves a disservice if we try to follow their example? Can we really get by on 3-4 hours of sleep? I’ve tried. That happens every February and September while covering international fashion weeks. It doesn’t go well. By the end of the month, I’m grouchier than usual (and that’s saying something), dependent on frequent caffeine jolts, and generally not in the best of health. So, what is the best approach to sleep? For that matter, how should we think of rest in general, not just the moments we are unconscious but awake moments that provide us with some level of physical regeneration. 

Not Sleeping Takes A Toll On Your Body

taking a toll

We all have those moments when we have to put in an extra-long day. The car breaks down and shifts everything late. A child gets sick forcing a late-night visit to the clinic. Deadlines looking mean staying late at work. We encounter these interruptions to our sleep on a somewhat random basis and while we feel tired we don’t think too much about them doing any harm to our body. For the most part, that perspective is correct.

What scientists are learning, though, is that when we maintain that habit, such as working multiple eight-hour jobs, the lack of sleep really begins taking a toll on our body; not just in the obvious ways of always feeling tired and losing focus, either. A lack of sleep affects the mind, heart, endocrine system, and immune system in ways we don’t always perceive until it’s too late. The older we get, the more critical the need for sleep becomes and that part seems to make sense but even when we’re still young and allegedly unstoppable we’re still doing damage to our bodies.

For example, let’s say you’ve put in a long day at work. There was an important deadline and you stayed late, putting in an 18-hour day. You got the work done. You’re proud of yourself. Now you have to drive home. There’s just one problem, at roughly the 18-hour mark, your reaction time is about the same as a drunk person. The last place you need to be is behind the wheel of a car. (source) No matter how much coffee or protein you’ve ingested in an effort to keep yourself going, it’s not enough. Even worse, when we work those long hours we tend to not eat or drink much at all, so we’re likely to further handicap ourselves by being dehydrated and under-nourished. 

The longer you stay awake, the worse it gets. Say you’re on an intercontinental flight, for example, one of those 20+ hour flights from one end of the world to the other. While most people sleep a bit, some don’t. Then, when they get to their destination, there’s still the ride to the hotel, checking in, and maybe even a meeting or two before having a chance to get some rest. Once we cross that 24-hour mark, our brains quite literally go into panic mode. They essentially start shutting down services randomly. Memory and mathematical processing go first. Your brain starts taking mini-breaks, around 20 seconds at a time where it appears that you’re conscious but you’re not. Your brain shuts down and isn’t paying attention. People say things to you, and maybe you even respond, but later you’ll have no memory of the event at all. (source

Eventually, especially past the 35-hour mark, your brain is keeping you alive and that’s about it. The brain responds more to negative stimuli than positive and irrational behavior is the result. Beyond 48 hours, hallucinations can take place and one’s actions are no longer reliable (source).

Oh, but that’s not all. Your heart hates losing sleep. Not only does one’s blood pressure soar from lack of sleep, but just the loss of a single hour can also be lethal. The Monday after the Spring return to Daylight Savings Time, when we lose an hour, heart attacks jump 25% (source). Heart attacks actually drop by 21% when we return to standard time in the fall. We need our sleep and there’s no denying it.

All those guys running around on less than six hours of sleep a day? You’re really hurting yourself. Studies show that prolonged lack of sleep kills your testosterone production by 10-15% and that’s a huge amount. Add alcohol intake on top of that and you’re really doing yourself harm. Just one week of bad sleep is essentially aging you by one year. Do the math, lunkhead. You’re slowly killing yourself (source).

We’re not done. When you pull those 18-hour days, your body starts to build up pro-inflammatory proteins like IL-6, a blood marker associated with chronic health conditions and heart disease. Your immune system goes right into the toilet. In fact, research shows that just one night of bad sleep reduces the number of cells that fight off cancer and chronic disease by a whopping 70% and when prolonged becomes a certified carcinogen (source)(source). People who work overnight or third shift jobs are at especially high risk. Cancer rates among those working two full-time jobs are significantly higher even when they don’t smoke and eat well simply because they’re not getting enough sleep

In short, everything we do is reduced in effectiveness and efficiency when we don’t get enough sleep. We might think we’re being productive, but the quality of the work we’re doing is inferior. Our bodies need the rest and the toll it takes on us isn’t always recoverable. The longer we go without sufficient sleep, but more difficult it becomes to “recuperate” and restore our body. The dangers are real.

Light Complicates Our Sleeping Patterns

A little less light

While doing my research for this essay (some of you thought I pull this stuff out of my ass, didn’t you?), I came across an article Linda Geddes wrote about a month ago on Why Office Workers Can’t Sleep.  Geddes is one of those science journalists who doesn’t mind putting herself right smack in the middle of a testing environment in order to get a better perspective on the story. She did exactly that with the study on how light affects sleep and the results are interesting. 

Her initial premise is something we already knew, at least in part. Blue light is bad for your sleep patterns, especially in the evening. Who is exposed to more blue light late in the day than anyone? Office workers. The bigger the office, the more blue light one is likely to encounter and, by extension, the more difficult it may be to get to sleep at a reasonable time. It makes complete sense. We see the effects and have little trouble accepting the studies we didn’t want to read in the first place.

We also have no argument with the fact that small screens, such as our phones and tablets, damage our ability to sleep at night. We still don’t put them down any sooner, but more devices now how an amber filter option that turns on automatically as it begins to get dark around us. The question is how many people actually use the amber filters? There doesn’t seem to be a decent study that’s been made public at this point. My guess is, given a large number of articles reminding people that filters are an option, that the number isn’t as high as it needs to be.

Where Geddes’ article gets interesting, though, is in the “back to natural light” experiment she cites. She looks at a 2013 University of Boulder in Colorado study that sent eight people camping in the Rocky Mountains to study how being removed from artificial light changed their sleeping habits. The results for the initial study were that participants fell asleep 1.2 hours earlier by the end of the trip, but also woke up earlier. Okay, that’s interesting but no one’s actually getting more sleep.

What might be more important from that particular study was that participants’ bodies stopped producing melatonin before they woke up. Melatonin is the natural chemical in our bodies that helps us get to sleep. When melatonin production stops before we wake up, we’re more likely to be sharp and ready to go. However, when we’re constantly exposed to artificial light, melatonin production continues even after we wake up, giving us that groggy feeling enticing us to hit the snooze button 15 more times. 

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The study was “recently” repeated in the winter. I know, who is crazy enough to volunteer to spend a week camping in the Rockies in the winter? My personal response is to question the sanity of the participants. The researcher involved went with them so perhaps someone wants to look into the sadomasochistic tendencies there. [Sort of kidding, sort of not.]

Participants in the winter study slept 2.3 hours longer than they normally would. However, the method of the study raises the question as to whether they went to be early because of the lack of light or in an effort to get warm? There’s also no answer to the question of whether they were allowed to “buddy-up” which would utilize the benefits of combined body heat, making sleep more comfortable, but depending on the “buddy” might also encourage other activities that would delay sleep. 

Not satisfied with the less-than imperial results she was seeing, Geddes tossed her entire family (husband and primary-school-aged children) into the experiment by having them all go without exposure to artificial light. There was understandably a period of adjustment and the necessity of working under some amount of ambient artificial light was inescapable. However, what she found was that by pushing herself outside during the day to be exposed to natural light (she did this experiment during the winter holidays) caused her melatonin production to kick in earlier when it naturally started getting dark. As with the Colorado study, she and her family found themselves going to bed and sleeping earlier. The effect was especially noticeable with the children.

Also worth noting, though, is the importance of bright light early in the morning. In all these studies as well as several others, exposure to bright light first thing in the morning helps reduce the “melatonin hangover” effect that keeps us reaching for the coffee pot all morning. There’s a balance to be achieved. Popping on a bright light as soon as we wake up in the morning might help us activate our day a bit more effectively and kicking all the lights off and using candlelight in the evening might make our sleep longer and more efficient at night.

There’s a ton of science behind these findings and there’s more coming. The effects of light on our sleep pattern as well as specific brain functions is a “hot topic” among scientists at the moment. As we’re heading into the natural darkness of the winter months, reaching over and flipping on a light (or a dozen) around 4:30 in the afternoon seems normal enough. But what if we lit candles instead? Could that reduction in electric consumption not only lower a bill or two but also make us healthier?

I have mixed feelings. We have cats and cats and candles don’t always work well with each other. I’m also not convinced that turning off the lights and the television so far before bedtime won’t cause our children to revolt. Yours might do better. Ours might threaten our lives.

What Deep Sleep Does For Us

What Sleep Does For Us

No one in their right mind is likely to argue against sleep. Well, okay, there are always those, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead folks,” but they’ll likely be dead soon anyway so we’re going to discount their insanity for the moment. Instead, I think it is perhaps a better use of our reading time to consider exactly what it is that deep sleep does for us and it can be summed up in one word: Clean.

No, it won’t clean the dishes (if only). What it does is scrub your brain. No, it won’t get rid of your porn or pony obsessions. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) essentially flushes toxins from your brain during REM sleep. Things like oxygenated blood, which can be fatal, are either eliminated or broken down so that they’re removed from our brain system before we wake up.

This has huge implications for anyone concerned about degenerative brain disease, Alzheimer’s, or dementia. There’s a nasty little toxin called amyloid-Beta. Amyloid-Beta contributes significantly to Alzheimer’s. However, good deep sleep for prolonged periods clears amyloid-Beta from the brain. While it does not necessarily prevent dementia-related diseases, it does significantly reduce the occurrence of those illnesses, which is a good thing. [source]

We also know that deep sleep coordinates memory consolidation. This is extremely important if you, say, want to pass that test you were cramming for last night, or are trying to learn a new language, or are trying to remember the names of all the menu items at your third job because wages haven’t increased significantly in twenty years. This is one of the many reasons babies sleep as much as they do: they intake so much new information in such a short period of time that their brains need sleep in order to consolidate and package everything.

Granted, there is limited research that suggests genetics may be the reason some people seem to need less sleep than others (source) but that research has yet to take on the task of quantifying whether those with that DNA anomaly are processing everything in less time than the rest of us, or if their brains are only doing part of the work and leaving the rest, such as the CSF cleaning, undone. 

Oh, and here’s another thing: that sleeping late on the weekend thing? That’s not helping any at all. In fact, it’s knocking your sugar levels and a few other things completely out of whack (source). People with Diabetes, pre-Diabetes, or even a history of Diabetes in their family need to stick to a consistent sleep pattern as much as possible seven days a week.

Sleep is when our brains take over and do all the maintenance work that our bodies need to function. The release of hormones while we’re asleep promotes cell growth that allows muscles to grown and gives our body a chance to heal itself (source). Sleep also helps give our immune system a boost (source) so that we’re a little better protected against those idiots who fail to vaccinate their children.

What this all comes down to is that the harder one is on their body, and especially on the brain, the more serious a matter it becomes for us to get a sufficient amount of continuous sleep. This is a bit of a blow for people like me who keep telling themselves that while I may not be getting the full 8-10 hours at night, I’m making up for it with little naps during the day. Nope. While the naps certainly don’t hurt, they don’t make up for the time it takes for slow-wave sleep to do its thing. We might feel rested and have an energy boost after a nap, but we’re not giving our body time to heal, time to process memories, or flush toxins from our bodies. If we’re consistently not getting sufficient amounts of sleep then perhaps it’s time we consider consulting a professional. There may be physical issues interrupting your sleep that a threatening your health without you knowing it.

Wasting Time and Doing Nothing Doesn’t Hurt, Either

A little "me" time

Within all this talk about sleep, it doesn’t hurt to mention that our brains can use non-sleep breaks during the day as well. I could easily fill a couple of pages with sources that advocate taking walks during the day, going for a bike ride, or even looking out the window and daydreaming. There’s a precedent for all those activities and more. Not working yourself to death every waking hour of the day.

For example, as hyper-focused as he was, Charles Darwin only worked three 90-minute sessions each day. He engaged in other activities that stimulated his brain in creative ways but didn’t tax them to the degree that his work did (source). Additional research suggests that for people engaged in the most mentally intense professions, such as mathematics, four hours of work, broken up by periods of less intense, relaxing activities, is optimal. Anything more results in diminished results. 

There are also long-term benefits to things like taking extended vacations and meditation. It’s probably important to note here that the type of meditation practiced by those involved in the “Mindfulness” field is not the same as that employed by Buddhist and does not yield the same result. However, it still has proven to be helping in doing things like lowering blood pressure, lowered stress response, and improved immunity from disease. The longer and more practiced one is in meditating, the greater the benefits, but even a one week vacation has health benefits on a genetic level if one does not spend the entire time running from one activity to the other. For a vacation to work the way it should, one needs time to relax, rest, and not be under any severe time constraints (source).

Not many people have the luxury of a schedule that lets them take time for a nap after three hours of work. Perhaps they should. The number of studies supporting rest breaks and even the use of sleep pods or other accommodations at work is significant. A study by the National Research Council strongly supports midday or mid-shift napping as a way to address increasing demands for productivity. Where napping is not appropriate to the environment, however, significant breaks, much longer than the 15 minutes required by federal law, not only enhances productivity at work but keeps employees healthier, dramatically reducing the number of days lost to illness. Sidenote: paying a living wage and taking an invested interest in an employee’s living conditions also provides a huge jump in work productivity, but that’s another topic for another day.

The bottom line to all this research is that working oneself to death ultimately hurts whatever it is you’re trying to do. There is, as far as I can tell, no profession that is immune. Even fast-food workers, whose intelligence and effort are much maligned, need more satisfactory breaks than what they are given. We all do better when we’re well-rested and our brains are less distracted. Exactly how we get there is less important than getting there, but we all definitely need to find that sleep/work balance that is optimal for our bodies.

A Bedtime Story

A Bedtime Story

Before I close this off, I want to relate an early lesson that my father taught my brother and me when we were young.

My father was a Southern Baptist pastor for over 40 years before losing his eyesight. This was back in the days when being Southern Baptist did not necessarily mean being combative and narrow-minded on every topic. Poppa was quite the opposite; rather quiet, frequently contemplative, gentle and comforting in his tone, all things that made for a tremendous pastor though perhaps not always the most forceful when it came to delivering a homily on Sunday mornings. He pastored small, rural churches in Kansas in Oklahoma and over the years garnered a reputation for growing their Sunday morning attendance from less than 50 to well over 100. Perhaps not the most dramatic real numbers, but for a rural community whose entire county-wide population was less than 700, he did well.

In one congregation in Northeastern Oklahoma, there was a deacon in the church who I’ll refer to as Dean. I was a young child of only 11 when we moved to the community so I don’t remember all the details save the fact that Dean would fall asleep exactly three minutes into Poppa’s sermon. This happened every Sunday. If the morning’s service had run according to schedule, Poppa would start around 11:30 and do his best to finish promptly at 11:50 so that the service would be completed by noon. So, Dean’s wife, May, would poke him gently in the ribs around 11:48 so Dean would have time to recover before having to stand. 

Dean’s habit worked well except during either the Christmas or Easter season when he would be compelled to sing in the small choir for the Sundays leading up to the holiday. The choir generally consisted of four men who couldn’t read music at all, six altos who said they could read but rarely hit the same notes, and five sopranoes, one of whom was so boisterous as drown out the other three. They would sing just before Poppa’s sermon, which, I guess for biological reasons, delayed Dean’s usual nap. Again, most Sunday’s this wasn’t a big deal. The entire church knew that Dean napped during the sermon so the deacon sitting next to him would dutifully give him a poke at the designated time and Dean would wake in time, except when he didn’t. More than once, the choir would stand to sing the final hymn and Dean would still be sitting there, resting peacefully. It was difficult at times to not laugh aloud.

Then, one cold Sunday in December, two weeks before Christmas, the choir sang through their Christmas program (a week early because the children took over the following week) and there were still about 15 minutes of open time. The sanctuary was packed as it tended to be that time of year, so Poppa stood to deliver a few short words to the captive audience. Three minutes in, Dean fell asleep, but this time, instead of is head dipping forward, his chin on his chest as was normal, his head fell back. The soft thunk as his head hit the paneling was enough to cause Poppa to pause for a second but he quickly continued not wanting to draw any more attention than it already had. Then, two minutes later, the inevitable happened: Dean began to snore. Loudly.

I looked down the pew at my younger brother who was watching me as we both attempted to suppress our giggles. May was sitting next to our mother on the front row of the choir and their heads turned in unison as they realized what was happening. The deacon sitting next to him tried poking Dean but it didn’t work. He tried yet again to no avail.

The timing of what happened next is responsible for searing this memory in my mind. Poppa was still doing his best to continue, attempting to narrate the details around Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. He said something to the effect of, “And as they made that journey, I’m sure at some point Joseph turned to Mary and said …”

“Damnit, May, I’ll get to the chickens in a bit. This calf isn’t going to birth itself!” Dean interrupted at full volume. Apparently, the deacon had just delivered another sharp jab and coming out of a farm-related dream, Dean had responded to what his subconscious thought was his wife.

I don’t recall Poppa’s recovery line. I’m sure he said something but it’s questionable whether anyone heard him. There was no way to not laugh at Dean’s outburst. His face turned a deep crimson. May’s went ghost-white. The service was effectively over. A final song was sung, a prayer said, and everyone went their way completely forgetting the choir’s performance but for years remembering Dean.

When we got home, my brother and I were still laughing at Dean, as insensitive children sometimes do. My father waited until dinner was on the table, the blessing had been said, before he delivered an important lesson. He said, “Boys, I don’t want to hear you laughing at Dean anymore. I know what happened this morning was funny in your eyes, but I want you to think about Dean. He has a lot going on. He has five kids to take care of, he farms 500 acres, has 30 head of cattle, plus sheep, a couple of goats, and all those silly chickens running around the yard. He has to take care of all his tractors and combines and harvesters, plus his old pickup and May’s car, and he does all that when he’s not teaching science at school. Did you know he has to get up at 4:00 every morning so he can get all the animals fed before he goes to school? Did you know that after school he’s usually out in the barn or in the field until nine or ten at night? He and May haven’t had a vacation since their honeymoon, and that was only three days because their bull got sick. So, when Dean sits down at church on Sunday morning and falls asleep, it’s okay. Those few minutes in church is the only time all week when he can relax. God understands. I understand. I hope one day you’ll understand as well. We all need rest and if we can’t rest in the presence of God there’s no safe place left to rest at all. Remember that, and remember to call him Mr. Smith, not Dean. Be respectful.”

Getting enough rest is a struggle for almost everyone. One of the reasons we publish stories and articles on Sunday rather than during the week is the hope that one has the ability to approach them feeling relaxed, not stressed, so as to be open to the ideas and concepts we introduce or enjoy the stories we create. I’ve given up on even trying to write something short, so if you happen to fall asleep during an article, I’m not going to fault you for that, either. You need the rest.

We all need the rest. And now, it’s about time for my nap. Enjoy your day.

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