The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is something students everywhere have a love-hate relationship with. On one hand, resting in a toasty warm bed is highly satisfying. On the other, it feels like a waste of time. If humans only get 24 hours in each day, it seems absurd that we spend a third of them essentially dead. As SASAH students pursue double majors whilst involving themselves in extracurricular activities, sleep feels more on the periphery when compared to writing essays or organizing events.

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But should it be? According to new research, pulling all-nighters or getting four hours of sleep are misguided efforts. Our belief that famous businesspeople such as Marissa Meyers and Martha Stewart are successful because they sleep less is also misplaced. In 2007, after constant sleep deprivation, media mogul and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington fainted from exhaustion. She woke in a pool of her own blood, having broken her cheekbone, and received five stitches. The consequences of sleep deprivation are truly devastating. In 2015, Goldman Sachs analyst Sarvshreshth Gupta committed suicide after telling his father “I haven’t sleep in two days” in his last phone call. In 2013, similar stories occurred. Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt died in the shower after working for 72 hours, Arvind Tandel killed his daughters by falling asleep at the wheel, and Jessica Rath, a mother, also lost her life in the same way. She leaves behind two young daughters.

While there are other factors at play, these stories reflect the deadly consequences of sleep deprivation. As young adults completing our undergraduate degrees, 7-9 hours is necessary for optimal performance and the completion of daily functions. But why is sleep so important? If one stays up later and wakes up earlier to ‘grind’ through homework, won’t they have a leg up academically?

 

The answer is no. When we are awake, our brain encodes important information learnt during the day. When we sleep, the brain processes that information by “consolidating memories … [forming] new neuronal connections and pruning old ones.” For information deemed valuable, the sleeping mind “strengthens the memory” or integrates it into “existing … networks.” While scientists initially believed the brain conducts little activity during rest, in actuality, it launches into frenetic action. Similar to how our body builds up lactic acid during a gruelling workout, our brains, too, generate waste when processing strenuous cognitive concepts. Our lymphatic system clears out the harmful acid buildup in our muscles while our brain cleans out neural toxins, such as beta-amyloid, so we wake up feeling refreshed. In a study conducted at the University of Rochester, sleeping mice showed that their brains were alert in cleaning out the toxins accumulated during their waking hours. In fact, the ‘toxin-cleaning’ cerebrospinal fluid in the mice that were asleep cleared brain waste twice as fast than the fluids in the mice that were awake. Without proper rest, our brain’s toxins cannot be cleaned and our cognitive functions operate ‘as if intoxicated‘. So, while you may think that you are being more productive by cutting down on your sleep, you are basically operating as if you’d just finished a night out at Jack’s.

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While there is the belief that sleeping less yields more hours for work, those hours are slow, unproductive, and produce low-quality results. What actually happens is that the person becomes more negative, reactionary, and distrustful, which makes it even more difficult for them to complete tasks properly. Surprisingly, this line of thinking isn’t limited to students. To the detriment of their companies, many business executives also try to one-up each other with who can sleep less, believing that being busy is equivalent to getting more done. When frustrated with a project, a more productive method would be to call it a night, go to bed, and tackle the problem the next day with a fresh mind.

student-849825_1920According to the Harvard Business Review, the four key components of effective leadership are all compromised directly by sleep. The components of being results-oriented, solving problems effectively, seeking out different perspectives, and supporting others are all negatively affected by sleep deprivation. This is due to a leader’s reduced cognitive abilities, which diminishes their focus, concentration, and perspective, making it, therefore, difficult to be a truly successful leader.

When companies add ‘nap rooms’ to their offices and schools adopt later start dates, the increase in sleep promises to boost productivity and improve ‘bottom lines’. A 2008 study showed promising evidence that power naps are more effective than caffeine, and short siestas are known to enhance performance, memory, and alertness. When companies such as the Huffington Post added two nap rooms, they were initially scoffed at — now they’re almost always full, with consideration for a third room being implemented. Now, giants such as Google, Zappos, and Ben & Jerry’s have all implemented nap pods in their offices. The same promising results show in schools. In 2002, when secondary schools in Jessamine County in Kentucky moved to later start times, students scored higher on standardized tests and had fewer car crashes. In 2014, a study followed 9,000 students and found that 60% of those teenagers received 8 hours of sleep when school began at 8:35AM. At 7:30AM, only 30% had 8 hours. Interestingly enough, the students who had an hour pushed back in their start time saw improvements in test scores, increased attendance, and a 70% decrease in car crashes; all this was from an extra hour in the morning.

Now that you see the importance of sleep, how should one properly prepare for bed? Living in an age of constant connectedness, we admittedly find it difficult to wind down for the night. That’s why one should adopt a sleep routine. Similar to how our morning routine slowly wakens us through brushing our teeth or eating breakfast, our nighttime routine should relax us. Arianna Huffington swears by taking a hot bath and reading physical books in bed, but you should adopt whatever works best for you. No matter what relaxing activities you choose, make sure to slowly usher out all electronics a half hour before bedtime. This removes any stimuli you may receive mentally in addition to the problem of the screen’s light, which often confuses the body’s natural circadian system.

bed-1284238_1920When it comes to sleep, quality trumps quantity every time. If it is late and you’re working sluggishly, please — go to bed. Attack your task with an alert mind and fresh mood the next morning and you’ll essentially save time, as your increased productivity will help you finish the work faster. This way, you can sleep more, improve your work, and be in both a better mood and health. At the end of the day, the best thing to do is go to bed.

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