Do you ever wonder about the state of consciousness we spend a third of our life in? Do you wonder why it was rarely covered in health class growing up? Do you ponder how the industrial age and light bulb built a work schedule that resulted in you being sleep deprived in high school? Do you realize that you have grown up to be a cog in a system controlled by the bourgeoisie? Are you inspired to overturn capitalism and start a revolution to liberate yourself from the sleep deprivation it has caused? I’m joking (I promise), but I sure didn’t think about sleep that much prior to reading “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Matthew Walker. The only thing I knew was that my sleep schedule was completely messed up and that I had no motivation to change it. A year ago, I made it a priority to read an eclectic variety of books…and a book that talks about sleep seemed just random enough to get me hooked. Here are some of the cool things that I took away.
If wellness is a pyramid, sleep is the base
Imagine playing a weird game of Jenga with thousands of blocks, where the tower is instead shaped like a pyramid, and different sections of the pyramid represent different facets of wellness (picture). Each player has a different number of blocks in each section and some blocks are removed naturally over time. In this game, bad decisions accelerate the rate of removal while good decisions slow or reverse the removal of blocks. Over time, as more blocks are removed, the pyramid becomes more unstable and therefore, more likely to collapse. Now imagine that sleep actually makes up the base of this pyramid. Crazy, right? While I knew that wellness is the byproduct of lifestyle decisions, environmental and socio-economic factors, and genetics amongst other things, I didn’t know that sleep was proportionally more consequential than every other facet of wellness.
I once asked a nutrition consultant for the Emory soccer team: “if I eat healthy, can I sleep less?” After 5 seconds of awkward silence, the consultant muttered that likely not. Turns out you cannot cheat sleep. I always believed that a lack of sleep could be made up for by eating healthier, working out more, and doing other healthy stuff. It now seems like the equivalent of maintaining a car and neglecting the tires. Beyond this, Dr. Walker points out that once we miss a good night’s sleep, we can’t just sleep off the consequences the next night. Why? Well that brings us to the next point.
Sleep deprivation is like bad credit
Now imagine that you take out a loan and for whatever reason, you can’t pay it back. As a result, your credit score suffers. The more you repay late, the harder it is to borrow money and buy a car, a house, or even pay the bills. Likewise, if you begin to pay back your loans, your credit score improves relative to your history. It then becomes easier to borrow and pay the bills. This is a similar mechanism for how sleep affects the other facets of wellness. We have to replace a couple things: the act of repayment with the act of sleeping, a credit score with holistic wellness, and the loan with adenosine: a neurochemical that accumulates while awake and makes us sleepier as the day progresses. Anything under 8 hours of sleep (in general) is considered late repayment. Each morning, a new loan is taken out.
If you sleep well in the evening, you have no issues paying down the adenosine from that day. If you sleep poorly, it gets a little trickier. Not only must you pay back the amount for the new day, but you must also pay back the previous day’s surplus. Likewise, there is a clear incentive to pay back the loan and get back on track. That evening, after feeling a little sleepier than usual all day, you may go to bed early and fully pay it down. Makes sense. The only problem is your wellness has already taken a hit, just like a credit score does after a late repayment. From this simple analogy, I found myself deducing all sorts of things. What if you borrow more to repay a previous payment? What if the cost of borrowing on the new loan is higher than the initial loan? At what point does this loop become unsustainable? Who gets caught in these sorts of loops? I’ll let you imagine that in terms of sleep and society.
Side thought — drinking coffee to stay awake is the equivalent of playing manhunt with your loan office…you can run but you can’t hide.
Now, onto a wavy fellow called the circadian rhythm.
What’s circadian rhythm got to do with it?
I usually find myself explaining away my circadian rhythm as the reason I can’t hang at 3 am on a Tuesday (…you know who you are). If you’re like me, before I read this book, adenosine was a completely foreign concept and circadian rhythm was a common buzzword related to sleep. Essentially, the circadian rhythm is the internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycles. It oscillates steadily throughout the day, with the peak and trough indicating our level of alertness. Important to note, it pays no attention to whether we are asleep or awake, meaning, it doesn’t give a damn about adenosine. They just happen to work together on the alertness workstream. From this graphic, you can probably figure out why the last few hours of the work day begin to feel more unproductive, and the need for coffee increases (Walker 31). It’s also important to note that each human has a unique circadian rhythm and pattern of sleep. Some people tend to be early birds, some tend to be night owls; kids tend to gravitate towards the former, adolescents towards the latter. Like most things in life, our circadian rhythm ebbs and flows and is affected by a whole bunch of other things.
Now, story time.
Hitting rock bottom
Jack decides to work at a company. Jack is excited. He plans to sleep eight hours and work eight hours amongst other things from Monday to Friday. Jack decides his weekends are for relaxing and hiking. Then, work starts and Jack takes on more than he can chew off, both at work and outside of work. Recognizing that life is about trade-offs, and that he is willing to succeed at all costs, Jack starts working a little more and sleeping a little less. Four months later, Jack feels empty. Jack rationalizes it away by telling himself that his hard work is getting him places. Eventually, Jack realizes that he is losing his mind staring at a screen for 90 hours a week. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise (respect if you get the reference).
People work longer hours due to Covid (The Economist). The line between work and home is blurry, and it’s hard to mentally turn off. My sleep suffers and it doesn’t help that every other advertisement tells me that success and sleep are not compatible. Last year, I spent three months living in Hanover, New Hampshire working on a mental-health startup. During this time, I took one day off, slept very little, and often fell asleep well past the witching hour. I went stir crazy working at a pace that was unsustainable, and produced a lot of work that I would now throw into an abyss deep in the ocean. Regardless, I deeply enjoyed this time in my life. I made plenty of mistakes I wouldn’t have made otherwise, and I learned that relaxing is sometimes the most productive thing I can do. I also learned that all relationships take effort, and that neglecting them is a shitty thing to do. In the end, I would definitely immerse myself in that environment again. The only difference is I now value certain things more than I used to.
In the wise words of Haruki Murakami, “the longer people live, the more they learn to distinguish what’s important from what’s not.” In the past few months, I’ve learned that the process of distinguishing what is essential from what isn’t, what is a priority from what isn’t, is really hard unless you lay down some values. I’m learning that making fewer decisions each day is often more effective than making a lot of decisions. I’m also learning that good decisions require patience, something I sorely lack sometimes. Most importantly, I’m learning that intuition is a trait that should never be undersold in establishing values and making personal decisions. With Dr. Walker’s thoughts now circulating in my head, sleep has a more meaningful voice than it used to. I now do things like consider sleep as an alternative to an extra hour of work, or sleep as an alternative to a late night hang out. I also think more about when that trade-off isn’t worth it. If every action has a consequence, life isn’t just about choosing what makes us happy, but also about what we struggle with as a result. While I now make better decisions about sleep, I will likely not obtain a perfect sleep schedule anytime soon. Not because work is that important, but because I love my life and making memories with the people in it way too much. Let the Jenga blocks fall where they may. I think I am okay with it.
Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. Vintage, 2014.
“People Are Working Longer Hours during the Pandemic.” The Economist, 24 Nov. 2020.
Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep. Scribner, 2017.