Sleep needs to move up on the priorities list

November 5, 2018

I am going to keep this really honest and raw. I very rarely prioritise sleep, there is an alarm set for me every day. There are days that I should definitely roll over and try and catch a couple more winks but I don’t.


“Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.” – Shakespeare.  


Earlier this year I wrote a post about a society that is always busy. Constantly running around, rushing and almost competing with others as to “who is the busiest.” The sad reality is that too often I find myself struggling to see the big picture and will fixate all my energy on what is stressing me out. For example, “is this assignment that has got me all stressed out going to be significant in five years from now?”


How often do you find yourself with massive bags under your eyes, struggling to stay focussed during the day because you’re tired, stressed and choosing to stay awake for another hour just to finish some emails? Sleep is seen as something for the weak and a waste of time when you think of the hundreds of other things you could be doing.


“Sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days.” – Thomas Edison.


I have been particularly interested in the importance of sleep lately. I have been doing some research on why it is important and the truth is I couldn’t really comprehend a lot of what was said. it seemed that the views were largely varied and contradictory. I found a TED talk titled “Why do we sleep?” and I got some answers that I would like to share.


Did you know that the average person spends 36 per cent of their life asleep. This means that if we are lucky enough to live to 90 then 32 of those years would have been spent entirely asleep, crazy! Do you think, that maybe on some level, if we are spending that much time asleep than it must be doing something?


Neuroscientists are now beginning to explain why sleep is so important for us. When we go to sleep there are actually some parts of our brain that are more active than they are in the wake state. Sleep is turned on and off from a whole raft of different interactions within the brain. There is no definitive reason why we sleep, neuroscientists have had  dozens of ideas about why we sleep but no clear one is outstanding. For the purpose of this post I am going to share three of the reasons that Circadian Neuroscientist Russell Foster shared in his TED Talk.


The first idea is that of “restoration.” This makes sense, we use up a lot of energy throughout the day so we need to restore, replace and rebuild during the night. The second idea is “energy conservation.” Again, this makes sense if we are asleep and are not really moving too much than we are conserving our body’s energy. This idea has come under a bit of criticism because we only save about 110 calories when we are sleeping which really isn’t that much.


The third idea and the one that Russell finds the most attractive and that is the idea of “brain processing and memory consolidation.” What the neuroscientists have found is that if after you have tried to learn a task you fail to sleep then the ability to learn and retain the information is smashed. I have definitely experienced this. Late night cramming with little to no sleep does not lead to retention of information, believe me. In addition to memory consolidation, it has actually be found that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely enhanced by a night of sleep. Sleeping at night also enhances our creativity. The synaptic connections in our brain that are important are also strengthened during sleep, while those that are less important tend to fade away and be less important.


Unfortunately for those that are sleep deprived (me for one), those benefits cannot be reached. In the 1950s good data suggests that most were getting around eight hours of sleep a night. Today, we sleep one and a half to two hours less every night! This gives us about six and a half hours a night, which is not enough.


“When you're tired and you lack sleep, you have poor memory, you have poor creativity, you have increased impulsiveness, and you have overall poor judgment.” – Circadian Neuroscientist Russell Foster.


Have you ever found yourself in a lecture or meeting that was not particularly engaging and involuntarily falling asleep? This micro-sleep is telling you in the most physical way it can that you are sleep deprived. Instead of going to bed early collectively as a society we fuel our bodies with all the caffeine we can get our hands on. This stimulates our brain and if consumed too much during the day it becomes the reason you can’t sleep at night!


Obesity has also been strongly linked to sleep deprivation. In fact, if you sleep around five hours a night or less every night then you have a 50 percent likelihood of being obese. Sleep loss causes our body to release a hunger hormone called “ghrelin.” This hormone tells our brain to seek out carbohydrates, particularly sugar, to stay stimulated and awake. Those who are sleep deprived are often times very stressed. This stress, if prolonged, leads to suppressed immunity. Stress levels that are constantly increased throw glucose into our circulation and can lead us to developing type 2 diabetes. Stress has also been strongly linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to raised blood pressure.


These alarming findings have led many to the question of, “how do I know if I am getting enough sleep?” Well, lucky for us the answer is not rocket science. If we need an alarm to wake up in the morning, if we are taking a long time to actually wake up, if we require a lot of caffeine, if we’re grumpy, if we are irritable, if we are told by others that we look exhausted then there is a good chance we are sleep deprived. Every one of those signs of sleep deprivation have happened to me in the last week.


Okay enough doom and gloom what can we do about it? Well the first thing is to make our rooms a safe haven for sleep. This means a dark room and a room that is slightly cool (summer ought to be interesting). Turn off our mobile phones and other stimulatory electronic devices as early as we can, brush our teeth in a dimmed bathroom not under the blearing heat light. Try not to have caffeine after lunchtime to ensure you give your body enough time to unwind.


There are also things we can do in the morning to help us to wake up. For example, seeking out some morning sunshine. The other morning I woke up an hour early to go for a walk out in nature before work and I honestly believe it was the reason I was able to be so productive at work. Nothing like a cool breeze and some light sunshine to wake you up in the morning.


As I go into my first week of SWOTVAC I am going to make a conscious effort to make sleep a priority. If I plan on retaining any of the information I have revised I think this is definitely a wise move.


It is so easy to give into sayings like “you can sleep when you're dead” and “you’re such a nonna, stay awake” but now knowing and understanding just how valuable and important sleep is to our overall health I think now is as good a time as any to get some more sleep. Now I am not suggesting not attending late time parties or staying up with your sister to watch a movie, but what I am saying is to ensure that most nights we are getting around eight hours of sleep. Not only will we be more tolerable to the people around us, but we will also be able to explore our unique creativity that we might otherwise not have access to.


“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” – Thomas Dekker.




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