You wake at 4:30am on what was supposed to be a lazy Sunday morning. Your four-year-old son climbs into bed with you and your partner (an occurrence that would be more welcomed if it happened a little later in the morning), you find yourself sitting up wiping the morning crust off your eyes. You want more sleep but the day beckons your attention so you force yourself up and you head straight to the coffee maker.
As the coffee is brewing, you open the YouTube app on your tablet to see a video thumbnail of a caucasian male in his 40's with a Bieber-esque haircut (the early teen years, not the married version) with the title of the video reading Why We Sleep. How appropriate you think to yourself, as you press play to see what it's about.
The man in the video is Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who studies sleep and is the author of the book Why We Sleep.
The title is misleading – as Walker himself states in the early minutes of the video, it suggests that there might be only one reason why we sleep. In fact, he presents sleep as a panacea for a bewildering array of conditions that would otherwise cause the slow deterioration of body and mind. Walker describes sleep as though he were marketing a new pharmaceutical:
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
Well, yes, of course you're keenly interested in this wonder drug; the problem, though, is getting your hands on the stuff. Being kneed in the spine by a four-year-old in the dead of night turns out to be the least of it; by the time you finished the video, the whole of modernity lay revealed to you as a vast, many tentacled conspiracy against sleep. Walker clearly explains the extent of the damage wrought by our collective ignorance of the importance and complexity of sleep’s role in our lives, and the difficulty encountered by many of us in getting any.
In terms of our natural sleeping tendencies, people can be divided into two broad groups, or “chronotypes”: morning larks and night owls. Each group operates along different circadian lines, and there is pretty much nothing owls can do to become larks – which is tough luck, because work and school scheduling overwhelmingly favour early risers. Owls are often forced, he says, “to burn the proverbial candle at both ends. Greater ill health caused by a lack of sleep therefore befalls owls, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack and stroke.”
Walker makes an almost poignant point about how our "culture sleep norms" are under assault on multiple fronts:
Midnight is no longer ‘mid night’. For many of us, midnight is usually the time when we consider checking our email one last time – and we know what often happens in the protracted thereafter. Compounding the problem, we do not then sleep any longer into the morning hours to accommodate these later sleep-onset times. We cannot. Our circadian biology, and the insatiable early-morning demands of a post-industrial way of life, denies us the sleep we vitally need.
How many hours do I sleep? You ask yourself. Is it 6 or 7. Maybe even 5 on those busy weekday evenings when you're trying to catch up on some work. He then makes a statement that makes you reflect on your own sleeping habits:
That low level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognise how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health. A link between the former and the latter is rarely made in their mind.
don't stay woke - Go to sleep
We in modern society have this delusion about busyness equaling productivity and success. So much so that we are willing to give up sleep for it. If we continue this trend, we will never restore sleep to its rightful place in our lives. We often speak about physical health in the way of exercise and nutrition, but we neglect mental health because the effects are not visible to the external world. There should be no trade off between success and sleep. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. Let's start taking care of our mental health by doing the simple things on a consistent basis. Have a bedtime and a wakeup time and stick to it even on the weekends (your body and brain doesn't know the difference between Wednesday and Saturday). Shut off all electronic gadgets at least 30 minutes prior to going to bed. Read a book or start writing a gratitude journal as part of your bedtime routine. Take a few deep meditative breathes and be present within the moment. Whatever you do, just develop a routine that can wind you down and relax your mind before sleep.
Sleep is not the enemy of success. It is a critical partner in the journey to becoming the best version of ourselves. Treat your mental health with care and look to sleep as a glorious ceremony where it will help you feel your best the next day so that you can perform at your highest level.
Now go catch some Z's.