My mother insisted that an hour of sleep before midnight equaled two after midnight. I don’t know where she got this idea or was it as simple as trying to convince her sleep-deprived daughter to get more shut-eye? Winters in Iceland are dark, windy, and cold. It was my emotional and irrational defense for reading romance novels through my teenage years, probably stunting my growth and no doubt cluttering my mind. Just when I closed my book, dad’s deep voice, “Girls, time to get up,” wafted up the stairs to the attic where our bedrooms were.
This habit of treating sleep as a second-class idea remained with me for half-a-century, or until a few months ago. So secure in my sleep opinion—less is better— that I preached it to others, my husband in particular. Even after retiring and time not an issue, I dragged myself through the day spreading yawning contagion, insisting it wasn’t for lack of sleep. Oh, no! It was too much sleep. Whenever I puff up my ego, I also talk louder, a trait my hubby has learned to tolerate. Anyway, who wants to spend what time they have left sleeping? Tim slowly bought into this idea, denying himself a nap no matter how tired. And so it went. Two tired people growing older together, quicker than need be.
On May 5, 2019, I set myself a goal to read a book a week. I asked my Facebook “friends” for suggestions for nonfiction books. Alternating between fiction and nonfiction, the latter was harder to find. Dozens of ideas streamed down my page, reminding me of the Christmas book flood—Icelandic tradition to gift a book (older people’s brains have large openings for long-ago memories). Will Grissom, a professor in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt who spends his days designing and researching medical imaging machines for use on the brain suggested I read, Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Considering this family member never suggested I read any book beyond Goodnight Moon to his two-year-old, I was curious. This curiosity turned out to rework my neural circuitry, over-writing old beliefs, replacing them with today’s fact-based knowledge. Until now, I thought of diet, exercise, and meditation as the three pillars to hold me up healthy and happy. Little did I know that the pillars were without a foundation, which turns out to be sleep. Without sufficient sleep, eating organic plants and beans, daily walks, and mindfulness meditation, my healthy habits rested on shifting sands.
In his book, Matthew Walker, Ph.D., explains what sleep is, why it matters, how and why we dream, ending with comments on sleeping pills to a new vision for sleep in the 21st Century. The impact of sleep deprivation links to children’s hyperactivity, depression, obesity, and chronic disease, to name a few. Chapter 8, Cancer, Heart Attacks, and a Shorter Life, uncomfortably states the relationship of sleep habits to health: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life—and unhealthy sleep, unhealthy heart. Yikes. Thinking back to my sleepless years and the price I was paying for endless romance novels I just hoped I had enough time left to finish Walker’s book.
Waiting for Annie Get Your Gun to start, Tim and I strolled around the block of The Limelight Theatre with our granddaughter, Edie. Out of the night air without a cause or reason my left big toe started throbbing. I resisted putting any pressure on it. The balmy St. Augustine evening was too perfect to pepper it with pain, so I told Tim what was happening and for him and Edie to go ahead. I would hobble behind. Unperturbed, Tim said this happens to him, and the answer is to keep moving. That’s his answer to all ills. My back is killing me! Go for a walk; it will relax the muscles. My head is pounding! Go for a walk and get some fresh air. This time, he was right. He went on to say that our aging bodies are weakening, and we are not as springy as we once were. He didn’t have to say that, but Matthew Walker agrees.
“As we approach midlife, and our body begins to deteriorate and health resilience starts its decline, the impact of insufficient sleep on the cardiovascular system escalates. Adults forty-five or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared to those sleeping seven to eight hours a night.”
Quality sleep means periods of deep, REM (rapid eye movement), and light sleep. The hours you lie in bed awake tossing and turning don’t count. It’s normal to wake up for short periods and not remember it. But for more than three minutes, it doesn’t go in the sleep column. In a deep sleep, our muscles relax and repair themselves. Blood pressure drops, and our energy is restored. In REM sleep, we are likely dreaming. This sleep stage is imperative for memory and mood.
Fitbit sleep experts have collected millions of bits of data from those wearing their products. Based on this information, they’ve grouped averages according to gender and age. For a young woman of 70, the average awake time is 15 to 27 percent of the night. Deep sleep is between 8 to 16 percent and REM 12 to 22 percent. Light sleep sometimes called NREM (non-rapid eye movement or dreamless), where we spend most of our sleep time averages 40 to 60 percent.
If you are a skeptic, there is a global experiment we are all a part of that may help swing you over. It corroborates Dr. Walker’s findings. In spring, people in the Northern Hemisphere, switch to daylight savings time. Researchers have tabulated hospital records to see if there is an increase in heart attacks the day after people have set their clock forward an hour. There is. A 2014 study reported in the journal Open Heart, there was a 24 percent increase in heart attacks the first Monday after missing an hour of sleep. In the fall, when we gain an hour, no such spike was noted. A similar relationship holds with auto accidents. Dr. Walker writes, “Most people think nothing of losing an hour of sleep for a single night, believing it to be trivial and inconsequential. It is anything but.” Driving sleepy (sometimes falling asleep) kills more people than drunk driving. My Honda CRV flashes a cup of coffee on my dashboard when the sensors detect declining attention.
Members of Congress are proposing legislation making it mandatory for new cars and trucks to include alcohol detection systems. Sleep research suggests sleep detection is more important. Honda’s cup of coffee is a step in that direction. Then again, with self-driving cars, alcohol and driving sleep-deprived will no longer be killing people.
The impact that lack of sleep has on all of us and suggestions for ways to use sleep to maximize the body’s healing powers are too numerous to list. After reading the book, Tim and I have made sleeping a priority. We’ve noticed that the afternoon dip has diminished, yawning is rare. If we feel under the weather, instead of “tough it out,” we take a nap. Right around the two-hour mark, husband checks on me to make sure I’m still breathing. Because if I’ve stopped, he has to rearrange his schedule for the day.
After years and thousands of studies showing the relationship between processed food and chronic disease, doctors are beginning to encourage eating whole food and less meat. It will be years before what’s known about sleep reaches doctors’ offices. In the meantime, we can learn it for ourselves in Matthew Walker’s book.
From Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
“CONCLUSION—to sleep or not to sleep
Within the space of a mere hundred years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep—one that evolution spent 3,400,000 years perfecting in service of life-support functions. As a result, the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity, and the education of our children.
The silent sleep loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations. If we wish to avoid the suffocating noose of sleep neglect, the premature death it inflicts, and the sickening health it invites, a radical shift in our personal, cultural, professional, and societal appreciation of sleep must occur.
I believe it is time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the damaging stigma of laziness. In doing so, we can be reunited with that most powerful elixir of wellness and vitality, dispensed through every conceivable biological pathway. Then we may remember what it feels like to be truly awake during the day, infused with the very deepest plentitude of being.”