Why Sleep >> Anything Else

Sleep is not a new topic for me. It’s woven into every health discussion in which I participate, but I can’t fight the urge to lay it out in a blog post! The reason being, it really is that important to discuss.  It’s also a weird topic because, unlike the elusive and complicated methods for eating well/exercising, getting enough sleep is a pretty simple concept that is so ingrained for humans I feel it doesn’t even need a discussion.. except then I remember that only 30% of US adults get the recommended hours of sleep each night. 

We live in the setting where productivity is rewarded. Usually this is quantity > quality, and I see this mentality spill over into our personal lives. Quotes like “you can sleep when you’re dead”, “sleep is for the weak” or “you don’t need that extra hour of sleep- go work out” start creeping in and create this notion that getting more rest is a waste of time. 

I’m here to remind you that getting the appropriate hours of shut-eye each night is probably the single most important thing you can do for your health right now. Forget the perfect diet, the high intensity interval training, the multivitamin.. get in your bed. 

If you get enough sleep, you’ll directly reduce your risk of:

  • high blood pressure 
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • obesity
  • depression
  • motor vehicle accidents
  • work-related injuries                                                                                 

Not to mention you’ll have the added benefits of:

  • improved immune system (poor sleep can directly alter inflammatory cytokines, affecting our ability to fight off infections; read more about that here for all you basic science people :)
  • better regulation of hunger
  • better workplace productivity
  • overall better quality of life

How much sleep do you need? 

Every person is different, but the National Sleep Foundation (an amazing wealth of information!) created this handy graphic that illustrates how the average number of sleep needed declines as we age:

Most people reading this are probably between the ages of 18-64, and aiming to get somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep each night should be the goal. If you’re persistently sleeping less than 7 hours, let’s fix that. If you’re persistently sleeping more than 10 hours, this could also be a sign that something else is going on in your health that should be addressed by your doctor (depression, thyroid disorder, adrenal insufficiency, just to name a few.) 

The reason this topic is also so important to me is because it’s personal. The first year and a half of my undergrad career (Go UCLA!! 8-clap!) I went in with mentality as mentioned above. Sleep was on the lowest of my priorities and I tried to do everything else- study for pre-med classes, play rugby (which required intensive 2+ hour practices several times a week), volunteer, AND socialize/party.  This probably sounds all too familiar to the typical college student.  Even though I was technically participating in all of these things, I felt so… fogged.  Not depressed, not sick.. just, foggy. I yearned for sleep. I was falling asleep in my classes, I was irritable after long weeks and midterms, and overall my baseline was just “meh.” My grades weren’t spectacular, and my overall perspective on life was just mediocre. Don’t get me wrong, I was having a great time and pretty happy, but something told me this wasn’t my best self. I went home for winter break during my sophomore year and all the exhaustion caught up to me. I slept so heavily for those 2 weeks and didn’t care to do anything else. By the end of it I realized how I was ACTUALLY supposed to feel, and from there, I never looked back. Coming back for winter quarter I committed to simply sleeping when I was tired and waking up when my body wanted to. IT. DID. WONDERS. 

I had forgotten what it was like to simply feel that good. Everything else fell into place– my grades improved, I got stronger on the rugby field, and I genuinely and truly enjoyed my social time. My friendships got closer and the people that loved me just accepted that I was the one who would always pass out early (knowing I’d be jumping out of bed in the morning having breakfast ready by the time they crawled out from under the covers.) I made that simple decision and never looked back- it’s carried over into medical school and residency. It’s not perfect, and I still have to go days without my optimal # of hours each night, but it’s still so much better than if I had continue to blow it off.  Sleep schedule during residency is nothing short of erratic, but in a setting where your sleep-wake cycle is so disturbed, making it a priority has never been more important. 

How to sleep better:

Firstly, you just have to make it a priority. You have time to sleep, you really truly do. For one week forgive yourself for delaying some obligations, missing workouts, etc.. and just sleep as much as you need. Notice how you feel. Notice your increased productivity when you’re awake. Notice the change in your mood. Once you’re in a good sleep pattern, then and only then reintroduce auxiliary obligations. I completely understand that as a person with no children, I have no obligation to make recommendations for how to sleep better with little ones disrupting your sleep. I can only gently suggest that it be a priority over the small bits of time in your day for other obligations that do not serve you or your family. 

Tips for sleep hygiene:

  • Bedroom should be as dark as possible. Invest in blackout curtains (they will change your life.)
  • On that note, your bedroom should be an oasis with not an ounce of stress-induced stimuli. No homework in bed. No work-related emails. Just a sanctuary of peace.
  • plug in your phone on the other side of the room. No electronics (there’s a ton of evidence about how screen time messes with your sleep patterns before bed, read here if interested)
  • avoid caffeine after a certain time in your day (it’s different for everyone, i can drink coffee at 6pm and still fall asleep at 9 but others can’t even look at it after lunchtime or they’re up all night)

If you’re trying all this and still sleeping poorly, you may have disordered sleep. It’s important to distinguish between falling asleep, staying asleep, or excessive daytime sleepiness despite a presumed adequate number of rest.  All of these have different etiologies, and should be managed by a doctor to discuss your symptoms in detail. What I don’t recommend is immediately reaching for a medicine as a sleep aid.  Medications like benadryl, even though they’re available over-the-counter, can create a vicious cycle of dependency while masking the underlying cause of your disordered sleep. 

In summary, fight the demands of our culture to put sleep on the back burner. I can almost guarantee that if you do just the opposite, you’ll be your absolute best self. Almost as cool as these two:

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^(sneaking in on my husband and dog taking a nap, totally not good for their sleep hygiene. My bad. But look how cute they are!)

Love,

Shanny,D.O.