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Sleep is one of the most essential behaviors for the success of individuals, which is why it’s concerning that it is also one of the most misunderstood human behaviors. Sleep has been associated with laziness and weakness. You’ve probably also heard the expression, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” The truth is, a lack of sleep can contribute to a series of mental and physical health issues. Thankfully we were able to sit down with sleep expert, Dr. Meeta Singh to set the record straight about the importance of sleep.  

Why Our Society Denounces Sleep: Hustle Culture 

Human beings have become the only species that actively denounces sleep. Why? For a multitude of reasons, sleep has been associated with laziness, weakness, and lack of ambition. This, of course, explains why the phrase, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is still glorified among the human population. When you hear others talk about their lack of sleep when it comes to studying for a big test or preparing for a meeting at work thoughts like, “Wow they’re so dedicated,” or “I don’t know how you do it, you’re so strong” come to mind. The truth is, it’s far more responsible to prioritize sleep on nights leading up to those  extra important days. 

Understanding why our society denounces sleep starts with realizing what sleep actually is. Sleep expert, Dr. Meeta Singh defines sleep as, “A normal physiological behavior.” On a daily basis, our minds and bodies are engaged with work, school, social activities, etc. These active periods prepare us for our rest period - sleep - and sleep prepares us for our active periods, and so on. This cycle only works to our benefit if we take the time to actually live through it. Human beings will spend ⅓ of their lives sleeping. Bottom line, if it wasn’t important we wouldn’t do that much of it. 

The second part of recognizing why our society denounces sleep so often is understanding hustle culture. In today's day and age, we constantly have different things competing for our attention. The latest Tik Tok trend, or workout that promises to give you results faster than any other. In addition to social media being a common distraction, we’re also fully consumed with reaching for that next step. This could be in your career, your family life, your dating life, or your fitness life. “How can I be the best and get farther than I am right now?” is a question that runs through the minds of individuals on a daily basis. Our access to artificial light doesn’t help this cause. 150 years ago people were achieving proper rest due to natural light fading at a certain time. There were no electrical lamps, screens, and most importantly no blue light - one of the biggest contributors to not getting a proper night’s rest (we’re looking at you, iPhone). It can be concluded that in order to get to where we want to be and actually reach our long term goals, we need to start prioritizing sleep – it could be the difference between longstanding success and failure.  

Sleep and Learning

It’s widely known that sleep is super important for learning. So, why then, do most colleges keep their libraries open 24 hours a day during midterm and finals season? Why are students still pulling all-nighters to feel prepared for their tests? This is another example of human beings trying to fit too many things into the day and not prioritizing the importance of rest. Dr. Singh touched on the importance of sleep for long term learning. This is especially relevant for college students majoring in a subject their career will directly depend upon such as teaching or nursing. Dr. Singh noted, “There is plenty of research, especially on high school and college students, that when they don’t get good sleep there’s a negative impact on their grades and mental health.” Dr. Singh also told us that our sleep requirements change depending on our age. This is why newborn babies sleep for 14-17 hours per day but the average adult only needs 7-9 hours. When we achieve under six hours of sleep for multiple days in a row we’ll start to see the detrimental side effects that accompany lack of sleep. Not reaching your target amount of sleep hours is especially common during the work week as we’re once again trying to get too many things done at one time. We’ve developed this idea of a “time famine,” always afraid of losing too many hours in a day and feeling that there aren’t enough for us to feel satisfied in what we’re able to realistically accomplish. 

Can you ever “Catch Up” on sleep?

It’s a common practice to try and catch up on sleep over the weekend, but can we really ever catch up on our sleep? The short answer is: Yes. However, The cycle of Sleep depriving oneself and then playing catch up is over all detrimental to health. When we don’t get our recommended hours of sleep during the week, we start to accumulate sleep debt. Sleep debt is the amount of hours of sleep you’ve missed that accumulate over a period of time. For example, if you are only getting 5 out of 7 hours of sleep that you need over a period of five days, you’ve just accumulated ten hours of sleep debt that cannot be erased over two days of sleeping in on the weekends. Instead, we have to try and deplete this debt overtime by trying to get more minutes or hours of sleep during the regular work week. Over time, your sleep debt will lessen, and you’ll have created a routine that allows you to get a more consistent sleep on a regular basis. 

Are you napping properly? 

Yes, there is a correct way to nap. Many people find when they wake up from a nap they either feel refreshed or like they got hit by a bus. This is because naps are dependent on time: what time during the day you take the nap, your circadian clock in the brain. They’re also dependent on length of time you nap: how many minutes you nap determines if you fall into light, deep, or dream sleep. The best time to take a nap during the day is in the afternoon between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

  • Power Nap: this nap lasts between 15 and 25 minutes and leaves us in light sleep. We’re left feeling alert, awake, and refreshed. 

  • Short Nap: this nap lasts between 30 and 35 minutes. We fall into a deeper sleep than we do in a power nap called N2 sleep. 

  • Full Sleep Cycle Nap: This nap allows you to feel each part of the sleep cycle and lasts 45-60 minutes. The problem is, because a full sleep cycle takes approximately 90 minutes to complete, you will likely wake up from a deep sleep at 60 minutes. This will make you feel groggy, and you’ll take longer to get going - cue that “hit by a bus” feeling. 

Sleep and Mental/Metabolic Health 

Have you ever noticed that when you’re tired you’re more likely to get anxious or depressed? That’s because sleep serves a vital function to positive mental health. Dr. Singh notes that, “While we’re asleep, blood rushes to the brain and power washes it. It fully cleanses the brain of any toxins you experience throughout the day. For this reason, you can think of sleep as a nightly reset button.” This reset button helps prepare us for stressors that might come in the future instead of having it build up over time. Sleep and mental health have a bi-directional relationship. Poor sleep increases the risk of someone suffering from mental health issues. In addition to the overall risk being higher, poor sleep makes mental health more difficult to treat. Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, make a person more vulnerable to suffer from depression. Overall, we’re meant to be sleeping at night so all parts of the brain that are active during the day can rest. If we don’t allow our brain some quiet time, it can’t function to our benefit when it’s supposed to.

On a metabolic level, lack of sleep impacts us as well. When we are sleep deprived, our ability to metabolize glucose becomes impaired. The amount of leptin - the chemical that makes us feel satisfied and full - isn’t generated so you're more likely to eat more sugar and carbs than your body needs. Your metabolism also slows which only increases this desire. 

It’s clear that sleep is extremely important for the health of our bodies, but we don't treat it with as much importance as going to the gym or eating vegetables. However, if we’re looking at our health from a holistic standpoint, sleep needs to be a priority. Sleep contributes to many healthy processes our body goes through on a daily basis and maintaining good sleep hygiene is essential to putting your best foot forward. Here are some final tips from Dr. Meeta Singh to help you make the most of your sleep: 

  • Sleep in a dark room

  • Keep electronics away from your bed or outside your room

  • Be aware of the amount of caffeine you’re drinking - caffeine’s half life is 5 hours

  • Be aware of the amount of alcohol you’re drinking

Having trouble with sleep? Talk to your doctor about possible sleep disorders or supplements that can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

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