Why do we sleep? Truthfully, we do not know. From a survival perspective, sleep is largely counterproductive. It places us in a state that alters our sense of reality (dreaming) and makes us vulnerable to predatory attacks leading to death and injury. We do not eat or drink while we sleep, nor do we pursue excellence in our favourite fields of knowledge and adventure. We don’t actively work towards accumulating financial wealth and we aren’t interacting with others to build bonds or form a community.
When we sleep, the mind enters a state of darkness and we are truly alone in much of the sense of the word. One-third of our lives (ideally) is spent in this state. Yet, being asleep is so intrinsically part of the human experience. Casting good sleep habits to the wayside has started to have a “self-euthanising” effect on developed economies across the globe. These are the cautionary words of Professor Matthew Walker, sleep scientist and author of a breakthrough book on the subject titled Why We Sleep.
I’m sure many of you, like myself, have suffered from a lack of sleep for many years. I heard at health seminars that it was good to sleep, but just how good and necessary it was for us was never emphasised enough to shake me out of my complacency. But that has changed and I want to share some realities concerning this part of our lives that I have been “sleeping” on.
is our democracy at stake?
In developed nations, at least one-third of the adult population is sleep deprived compared to the CDC guidelines that recommend seven-to-nine hours of sleep each night. Why should we care? Insufficient sleep is tearing our society apart—and not just our physical health. Lack of sleep causes obesity, chronic illness, low testosterone, vehicular accidents and negatively affects mental acuity, mental health and our body’s ability to recover—the list goes on. However, what if you were to consider the moral and ethical issues underlying society that are in no small part driven by sleep deprivation? A hustle culture that esteems the sleep-deprived boss or employee has very real economic drawbacks. Our social fabric also suffers. Employees in one study found those who had six hours or less of sleep a night were more likely to lie or blame others in the workplace. Sleepy employees contributed to resentment by choosing a more selfish path compared to those who got adequate sleep. It is not too much of a stretch then to assume that these encounters are happening in all areas of society, contributing to the polarisation and hostile internal tensions rising in democratic nations. In other words, polarised and politically heightened climates exacerbated by social media are not being helped by systemic sleep deprivation. Practising healthy spirituality through empathy, honesty and patience is increasingly difficult when we haven’t had enough sleep. If our capacity to form relationships is stunted, navigating the communities we live in becomes even more challenging.
quantity is a quality of its own
In many areas of life, quality is seen as a virtue over quantity. When we think of spending time on a skill, exercise or deep focus work, the quality of time is often what matters most. But when it comes to sleep, quantity is a quality of its own. In his book, Walker points out that sleep deprivation is not a debt we can pay back by binge sleeping to compensate for lost nights of sleep. Sleep deprivation cannot be made up for and the brain does not recover from the sleep it is deprived of. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Walker says that the number of people who can survive on six hours of sleep or less and show no impairment because of it “rounded to a whole number and expressed as a percentage of the population is zero”. Even a quality six hours of sleep cannot replace the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. When considering it, this third part of our day in which we sleep needs our vigilant safeguard and immediate rectification. The old maxim, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, contains truth. The less you sleep, the less you will live. So, do not feel guilty about extending your evening restfulness. Instead, indulge into those enticing sheets and take the full night’s rest—you’ve earned it!
be better at what you want to do and be happier doing it
Suppose I were to sell you a product that can enhance your ability to learn new skills (language, sport, memory, etc), drastically reduce chronic illness and make you happier and more invigorated. Would you be enticed?
Think back to when you were learning a new skill, be it a new instrument, a piece of music, kicking a ball, playing pool, a mathematical equation or just a solution to a problem you were facing at work or in your personal life. If you ever found that the next day the “problem” suddenly “clicked”, you aren’t alone. One of the great benefits of sleep is its ability to restore our capacity to learn. Studies taken during the lighter stage two NREM sleep after memorisation exercises noted the consolidation of learning comparative to peers in the study who did not sleep. Sleep scientists monitored the measured “sleep spindles” (a specific pattern of brain wave that occurs during sleep) in the brain while these patients slept. Their findings revealed that the greater number of sleep spindles observed during sleep, the greater the restoration of learning ability the next day. Still, sleep spindles’ exact function is unknown but evidence strongly points to their role in “brain plasticity, process of learning and integrating new memories”. Therefore, before embarking on another all-nighter or simply trying to push harder when learning a new skill, remember that sleeping seven-to- nine hours each night is intrinsically linked to your ability to problem solve and develop new skills. Put whatever has been gnawing at you to rest for the evening and be ready to tackle it again with renewed capacity the following day.
small changes to promote better sleep
Do you want to maximise your sleep but find yourself in a loop of bad habits and restlessness? There are some practical and efficient lifestyle changes to consider adding to your day to prepare for the night ahead. Below are nine suggestions recommended by neuroscientist and associate professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at Stanford University, Dr Andrew D Huberman, host of the health podcast, The Huberman Lab.
1. View direct morning sunlight when waking (do not stare straight at the sun) for 2–10 minutes on clear days and 20–30 minutes on overcast mornings. This establishes the body’s circadian clock, giving the body cues to wake up and start a timer for the onset of melatonin to help you sleep in the evening.
2. Wake up and sleep at the same time each day. Make this as non-negotiable as possible day-to-day. Dr Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and sleep medicine expert, says, “When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync and all your other bodily functions will go smoother, including your sleep.”
3. Aim for seven-to-nine hours each night. Consistency in waking up and going to sleep reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle and helps all other bodily functions run more smoothly.
4. Exercise during the day. Movement feeds the need for rest-and-recovery and vice versa. Regular exercise will help you sleep longer, fall asleep faster and get better rest.
5. Avoid caffeine 8–10 hours before sleep time. Caffeine blocks your sleepiness receptors and has “an average half-life of five-to-seven hours”, says Walker. Even if you don’t feel the effects of late caffeine intake on sleep, your sleep cycle will likely still be disrupted, particularly deep sleep.
6. Create a window routine where blue light exposure is minimal to nought. Blue light disrupts the release of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleepiness, and sends your body messages that it’s time to be awake.
7. Limit napping. This can throw off your body’s natural sleep schedule, especially if you typically struggle to fall asleep.
8. Keep the room at a cooler temperature. Your body temperature needs to drop for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. If it’s too warm, temperature increases might cause you to wake up.
9. Use medication to help sleep as a last resort and limit (ideally avoid) alcohol consumption. Walker says it takes your liver and kidneys many hours to break down and excrete alcohol. Even one glass of wine with dinner is enough to cause poorer sleep quality, less deep sleep, less restorative sleep and poorer memory consolidation.
One of Jesus’ most important messages to His followers was to come aside and “rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). Perhaps He knew how easy it is for us humans to get swept up in life with all its busyness and distractions. So, may you prioritise rest. Your brain will thank you, as will your emotions, relationships and spirituality.
As Walker said in his book, “Sleep is the greatest life support system you could ever wish for.”
Mark Sutherland is an intern pastor at Raymond Terrace Mission Seventh-day Adventist Church, NSW. Originally from Bundaberg, Qld, he is yet to adjust to the ice-cold waters of the southern beaches.