It’s been years since I last got on an airplane (and I probably never will again for a whole host of reasons) but I recall that the flight attendants did a safety demonstration. It started with you taking care of your seat belt and your oxygen mask before you took care of any children or invalids traveling with you. The rationale was that you couldn’t help anyone else if you hadn’t secured your own safety first.
This is what sleep and exercise do for you. They make you healthier and more resilient so you can take better care of the people around you. You become better able to do the work you have to do and you can recover better when bad things happen. You simply cannot take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.
We’ll tackle sleep first as it can be (sometimes!) easier to sleep than it is to exercise. Certainly sleeping is less sweaty and strenuous.
The Need For Sleep
You see these ridiculous T-shirts all the time: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” If you don’t get enough sleep, you will be dead. Sleep deprivation is, by the way, a torture technique and one that doesn’t leave any visible marks.Think about sleep. You are so vulnerable. Unknowing of anything that is happening around you. Easy prey for any lucky predator. And yet, every living creature with a brain sleeps! Fat, juicy little mousies and rabbits at the bottom of the food chain and on everyone’s lunch menu sleep. Fish sleep with half of their brain and then sleep with the other half of their brain. Dolphins and whales take naps with one eye open to look for predators and the opposite side of the brain sleeping. Birds sleep, lined up on branches. In fact, brown snakes were accidentally introduced into Guam years ago. They took advantage of sleep to eat whole branches filled with sleeping birds that did not evolve in an environment with snakes. Not many birds left on Guam now.
Now why would evolution make sleep such a priority that mammals that live in the water (where they can drown) and bottom of the food chain snackies have to sleep? You can understand why tigers sleep. Nothing is going to bother them! But deer? gazelles? ground hogs? squirrels? lizards? turtles? chickens? sparrows? Even insects enter a state of torpor which resembles sleep. All these critters are at risk of being devoured while they sleep. And yet they do.
You don’t get evolutionary traits that lead directly to being eaten before reproducing. (Afterwards, sure. The job got done.) That sort of behavior tends to get weeded out via natural selection. But sleep stays. This tells us that sleep must be of absolutely vital importance. In fact, rats that are kept from sleeping will fall over and die.
Sleep is damn difficult to study and so nobody knew very much at all about why it was needed. There was just empirical evidence that if you didn’t get enough sleep, your functioning declined. This seemed true of animals as well. Sleep-deprived animals slept more to make up the loss.Thanks to improvements in brain studies, we can now get a better idea of what happens when we sleep and why we need it so desperately. Sleep is vital to the functioning of the brain. Your brain is active all day, filling up with junk thoughts and junk chemicals. When you sleep, your body does housekeeping on your brain, getting it ready for another day. If you don’t get enough sleep your brain isn’t fully cleaned and ready to go. Sort of like rinsing your dinner dishes instead of scraping and washing them. Keep eating your meals off of those dirty, unscraped plates and problems will arise. It’s icky and unsanitary and will lead to food poisoning or intestinal parasites. This is why we wash our dishes before reusing them.
In fact, one sleep study released last year showed a link between sleep patterns and the build up of beta-amyloids that’s an indicator of Alzheimer’s.
So you have to sleep to keep your brain at its best level of functioning. Sleep also seems to affect all your other body processes. Even your weight is affected by your lack of sleep. More sleep lets your body more easily maintain its weight and not just because if you are asleep you can’t eat. All kinds of hormones are adversely affected by not sleeping and research keeps finding out more. Are your children being diagnosed with ADD? Maybe they need far more sleep than they are getting. Does your depression lead to insomnia or does your insomnia make you depressed? More and more, it seems like the latter. Every where you look, you find more body issues that are related to sleep.
Sleep seems, as well, to act like a checking account. That is to say, you can’t make up sleep deprivation with a few extra hours of sleeping in. Like any other debt, you have to pay it all back, before you can start over. Thus, years of sleep deprivation, from people who think they have too much to do to waste precious time sleeping, will take years of catching up.
Studies on this topic show that people who are sleep deprived will, if given the chance, sleep for fourteen hours a night for weeks and weeks until they gradually fall back to the more normal seven to nine hours a night. They had to make up all that time. My dear husband actually experienced this when he was working, alone, for six months in Central Pa., while the kids, animals, and I stayed home in S.C. trying to sell our house. DH did nothing but sleep and work for the first few months he was up here. As he got more caught up, he started feeling like a new person. An alert, high-functioning person to be precise.
Sleep studies also tend to show that if you follow the sun’s schedule; i.e., you go to bed when it gets dark and get up when it gets light, you are down for more hours, sometimes many more hours than eight. What happens is your sleep gets divided into two parts: first sleep, followed by a period of wakefulness of an hour or so and then second sleep. Diaries and letters that date back to before people had artificial lighting reflect this. During the waking period, people would talk quietly, daydream, pray, and yes, spend some quality time with their partner. There is a great book on this subject called “At Day’s Close” by A. Roger Ekrich. It’s a fascinating look at a world without artificial light. Remember that most people would be too poor to have more than a few candles so they didn’t have a lot of choice as to their nighttime activities.
I suffer from chronic, unrelenting insomnia. It’s hard for me to fall asleep and I wake up easily. I do all the sleep hygiene stuff and I probably know more than most doctors about the subject. Nonetheless, it has taken me almost two years of sleeping ten hours a night or more to start feeling like a real person and not a zombie. Years and years of not enough sleep and interrupted sleep left me borderline psychotic and suicidal. I feel much better now, thank you, but if you want to see fear, ask my children if I should cut back on my sleep.
What changed for me? The kids got older. Younger son finally stopped with the endless nighttime coughing (dust mite allergies, we think). We improved our locks and got a dog so I felt more comfortable alone at night. And finally, best of all, my DH got his golden ticket and stopped working weird evening shifts whereby he would come home anytime from midnight to three am and waking me up every time. Once he was home full time, he started getting up at six AM to get the offspring off to school. All the previous years of our marriage, I got up at six AM to get the kids moving no matter how little I slept the night before and he slept in. DH had to, to function at work, but even so, it was hard for him to focus during the day.
My DH always had the gift of being able to go back to sleep and take naps. He still suffered from no-sleep headaches every day. He doesn’t anymore. I was never able to go back to bed and sleep which did not make things better. Instead I got more and more zombiefied, affecting how well I functioned, spoke, felt, thought, everything!
I had a sleep study done and found out that yes, as I suspected, I had garden variety insomnia. The only thing that works is rigorous sleep hygiene. Procedures that are boring, time-consuming, must be performed faithfully, night after night, those help. Drugs only work in the short term and none of them worked for me. At all.
The pharmaceutical industry makes truckloads of money selling sleep aids and so those are pushed all the time. Yet most sleep doctors agree that sleep hygiene improvements (which take far time and effort than popping a pill) work much better. Since these methods are free and no-one makes money on them, sleep hygiene tends to get ignored far more than it should, and that is what we’ll cover next week.