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Our Greatest Love Affair: Sleep

You work all day. You get home, and you may have mouths to feed. You certainly have your own.

You prepare the food; you eat the food; you clean up after the food. Perhaps you make 30 minutes available for a sweat session because you want to move freely in a way that is not monetized for your boss’s needs. You look at the clock, and it is 8 pm, and you are unsure where the time has gone.

You give 15 minutes to your pet, a bill, a household chore. It is life, and surely things need to be done now that you are home.

You stretch your arms and walk to bed with a sigh of relief. It is time. You turn on the television and go to your favorite streaming service.

Perhaps tonight, you decide to pick up a book instead. You say to yourself, “I work hard all day. I prioritize work, stress, and others, and now it is finally my turn.” 

Pause. I want you to ask yourself: how much time do you take? How many episodes do you watch?

How long do you look at your phone? How many games do you play? How many minutes do you avoid sleep?

After all, this is the part of life you enjoy, so you need to make room for it. But is this you prioritizing yourself?

Our Greatest Love Affair: Sleep

We Don’t Want It; We Need It

It is not up to us. “If only there were more hours in the day,” we have said it all before. We sacrifice our slumber to make space for the things that need to be done.

But, do they? After a night of binge-watching Bridgerton or Squid Games, you feel exhausted, touchy, and mentally fogged up. You want to blame the early hours’ work requires you to wake, but perhaps that is not the only thing to blame.

While the modern world certainly has some tweaks to make to our understanding and execution of productivity, we also need to adjust our mentality with sleep. Sleep is detrimental to us as it allows our bodies, minds, and spirits to prosper. Researchers today are more deeply probing the cellular and subcellular effects of improper sleep, as well as the impact of sleep deprivation on your metabolism, hormone regulation, and gene expression.

Any efforts to eliminate rest in any species or lifespan have proven to be unsuccessful. Yet, we continuously postpone our sleep. And, if we are not delaying it, we could still be doing it wrong.

As a result, we must offer thoughtful consideration when planning our slumber, ensuring we are sleeping the proper amount, and working to maintain undisturbed sleep for an adequate amount of time.

Monsters Under the Bed

What are we trying to avoid? Firstly, giving into the mentality that sleep interferes with our productivity and, therefore, wastes our time. Rather than admiring the willpower of those skipping sleep to work longer and harder, we must ask ourselves what is truly helping or hurting us.

Can money buy us more time healthy and alive? In the end, I am not so sure.

We must worry about inadequate sleep because it has been proven to increase the risk of a wide range of disorders such as hypertension, obesity, type 2-diabetes, impaired immune function, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, neurodegeneration, dementia, and even loneliness. Sleep helps fight infection and reduce inflammation which (as I always say) is the foundational cause of nearly all dis-ease in the body.

For example, the World Journal of Gastroenterology suggests a link between sleep deprivation and inflammatory bowel diseases that affect people’s gastrointestinal tract. If you are not sleeping well enough for long enough, it will leak into other aspects of your life. So, when pain or illness begins to burden your life, ask yourself, “how am I sleeping?”

A Double-Edged Sword

The main issue here is that we believe avoiding sleep will allow us more time to do other activities when the truth is without sleep, we cannot perform said activities as our best selves. I do not mean having an off day, which is excusable and gets the best of us. I mean, sleep disorders or avoidance impair us at a cellular level due to our inconsistent schedules.

Many studies have shown that cognitive performance and attention decline after more than 16 hours of continuous wakefulness. This does not mean the 15 minutes of focus you are risking at your office job, but rather the concentration and reflexes necessary for driving in your car, and it will only steadily deteriorate over time. Even when you think you are caught up on your Zzzs, REM does not forget what it has lost.

Your waking cognition will be impaired, so there goes your ability to think clearly, be vigilant and alert, and sustain attention. Some joke they have ADD, to which I always respond, “What is your sleep like? What are you eating? How do you move your body?” While I cannot blame them for their sneers, the fault is where it lies.

For those that do not have existing medical conditions or severe sleep disorders, all that is truly necessary is some minor lifestyle adjustments. Instead of introducing potentially harmful medication with, undoubtedly, a lengthy side effects list to your routine, find ways to get what you need naturally.

Your body knows when it is being lied to, and if it begins to receive melatonin from another source (your OTC pills and supplements) your pineal gland will think it no longer needs to produce the hormone itself. It is the biggest temper tantrum our body can throw, and it is for the sole reason that your body wants to work in the ways it was built to survive. It is our job to give it what it needs to do so.

Cranky-Adult Phenomena

If the negative health impacts and exhaustion are not reason enough to make you nervous, what about your psychological well-being? We know children get crotchety when woken from a nap, but adults experience the same sensation from lack of sleep.

That is why people snap at you before they had their coffee (heightened with a caffeine addiction, naturally), or when you moved their things, or why road rage lives on (again, likely due to caffeine withdrawal, lack of readiness, and sleep deficiency).

Your emotional and psychosocial interpretation of events is vastly affected by imprudent sleep and exacerbates your stress levels. Not only that, but they have also said that your emotional empathy decreases with improper rest.

Studies have shown that mood changes may be partly due to the effects of sleep deprivation on the processing of emotional memory. Meaning, when we are tired, our brains tend to select and recall privative memories, which is why we can have a severely negative emotional response to a minor stressor.

Circadian Rhythm: The Beat to our Lives

You may have heard of “circadian rhythm” before, and it was certainly not in a music course. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark and affect most living things, including animals, plants, and microbes.

Our body’s natural timing device is the reason you get you up at 6 am to go the bathroom even though it’s Saturday morning, and you had no alarm set. We can train it, and we can unknowingly disrupt it from functioning correctly.

This biological clock we contain is composed of specific molecules (proteins) that interact with cells throughout the body and can be found in nearly every tissue and organ. There is no maneuvering around it.

Now comes the tricky part. We understand sleep is necessary, and many of us desperately need and want for it and still suffer. How do we make this better?

Well, we can start by acknowledging the power of light. As soon as you get up, don’t touch any technology. Go outside, go to a window, go anywhere you can see the sun and let it shine on you. Breathe it in and allow your body to wake up properly.

Try to experience sunlight as much as you can get. Be greedy with it. Daylight will keep your internal clock aligned with the environment. This will get your circadian rhythm in order and is the most effective way to wake up.

Before bed, try to avoid as much blue light as possible. Blue light is your circadian rhythm disrupter and is the reason so many people struggle with insomnia today. It does so by suppressing melatonin secretion and can harm your sleep by a mere eight lux from your lamp by your bedside.

That does not include your television, phone, computer, or disco strip lights, which emit even stronger blue wavelengths. Researchers at Harvard have linked short sleep due to blue light with increased risk for depression and diabetes, and cardiovascular problems. Therefore, you should change your electronics settings to “warm light” to lessen the blow to your retinas.

Invest in some blue light blockers for the night and think Game of Thrones – candlelight! Make your bedroom a dark safe ground from activity. Allow your body to rest when in bed. Your bed should only be used for sleeping and sex; they said it, and they meant it.

Sleep is for the Week

The consensus of evaluations conducted by the AASM (American Academy of Sleep Medicine) and Sleep Research Society states that 7-7.5 hours of slumber is ideal for the average healthy adult. Once we move toward six and a half hours and less, we begin to see an increase in the prevalence of different disorders. Of course, you have met people who say they thrive on 4-6 hours of sleep a night, and while that may be true for them, the symptoms of exhaustion and ability to recover from sleep loss vary from person to person.

Scientists are still working to understand interindividual variability better. As of now, they acknowledge that genetic mechanisms may underlie complex interactions between circadian and sleep homeostatic systems. All to say, don’t base your own needs on that of your neighbor.

Another thing people tend not to do is go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. When we push ourselves to stay up on the weekend or sleep in on a Sunday, we negatively impact our circadian rhythm, interrupting our shut-eye during the week. This is one of my least favorite aspects of life, but it is true.

No matter how much we want to be in control of ourselves and our time, some things are just not up to us. Giving our bodies what they need to prosper and feel strong may not necessarily align with our calendars. We have to adjust to them because those agenda items will only get more complicated.

Don’t Hate the Player

Not only do we need to find a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it, but we also need to stop chastising others for sleeping differently than us. Oh, the struggle I had in high school when I would take a nap at 2 pm. My parents were on my case as if I had anything to offer them anyway, and I know I am not alone in that.

Despite this nuisance to our parents, studies have indicated that younger adults and teens are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of chronic sleep loss and recurring circadian disruption than older adults. So, stop sleep shaming!

This goes back to our interindividual variability. Most people are successful at 7-7.5 hours, which is the recommended daily dose, but while my father’s body naturally wakes up at 5 am, I am utterly useless before the sun has risen. Different strokes for different folks, and as long as you are trying your best to get the length of your sleep in check, the hours of the day you do so can come later (but it should still be on your radar).

They say you should wake up and go to sleep with the sun, and while we can respect specific rules, some things are easier than others. Regardless of when, once you begin sticking to a consistent schedule, you will realize it is not nearly as complex as you once thought because your body has been yearning for it.

According to the CDC, the sleep needs breakdown is as follows:

  • Newborns (0–3 months): 14–17 hours
  • Infants (4–12 months): 12–16 hours
  • Toddler (1–2 years): 11–14 hours
  • Preschool (3–5 years): 10–13 hours
  • School-age (6–12 years): 9–12 hours
  • Teen (13–18 years): 8–10 hours
  • Adult (18–60 years): 7-plus hours
  • Adult (61–64 years): 7–9 hours
  • Adult (65+ years): 7–8 hours
  • Avoid sleeping in when you have had enough sleep.
  • Going to bed around the same time each night.
  • Spending more time outside and being more active during the day.
  • Reducing stress through exercise, therapy, or other means.

Prioritize Shut-Eye

Sleep is not only something we need to do for its many health benefits and its effects on our character. It is also necessary for you to realize that you are not a machine and need to rest. Relax for a bit because you certainly deserve it.

Getting 7 hours of sleep should be the most exciting time of day because it allows you to reconnect with yourself and gives your body and mind time to catch up. All we do all day is bombard ourselves with news, excitement, stress, and tight schedules. This is our chance to slow things down and remember that we are only given one body, and rest is just as vital as movement.

Give your body the time it needs to heal, regulate your food intake correctly, and give you better performance in your daily activities. Your body needs to repair, regenerate, and recover, and you will feel the benefits once you find that consistent schedule that works for you. Your brain, body, and spirit will thank you for it.

About the Author

Danielle Tulipano

Danielle is a born and bred New Englander who graduated from Ohio State University just so she could lose the accent. Nowadays, she works at a private college in Boston, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Yogi, and obtains many skills from her adventures as a craft cocktail bartender. She is passionate about all things literature, art, travel, and mental and physical wellness. She aspires to maintain a life that allows her to continue to meet new people and hear their stories.