Sleep is hard to come by for a lot of us. We’re busy doing so many chores, working our asses off to get that promotion, or bag that big project, or score better at school. There are big benefits to life by clearing that exam or getting that big management post. But how good is it to skip sleep?
The standard approach to a task that demands more hard-work is to keep at it from dusk to dawn, battling forceful waves of drowsiness that seek to send you flying to bed. In fact, burning the midnight oil is considered a necessary and sufficient indication of hard work. It is even revered as being some sort of sure shot way to success.
Only, it’s not. Think about it. All these people around the world who believe the same myth (I’ll explain why it’s a myth in a minute) probably do the same thing. They sleep late at night, get up at the crack of dawn and hustle with Vulcan-like detachment. Do all of them become rich and famous? Why do we still have a handful of billionaires in the world’s population?
Humans have slept differently through the ages. From a fragmented sleep that lasted as long as our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t hungry or under chase, to a biphasic sleep that was the common trend till the 18th century, we have now arrived at a common culture that recommends 8 hours of sleep.
The conquering of sources of light has constantly been responsible for shaping our sleep patterns. Anthropologists commonly associate lack of fire with why hunter-gatherer communities slept whenever they were safe and not hungry. With agriculture and fire, sleeping at night was vogue. The Romans were a culture that hated sleep, while the Egyptians found it to be divine. Up to the 16th century, it was common to wake up late at night and spend even hours of wakefulness. It was a time people spent in prayer or completing little chores around the house.
Even as we are firmly established in the “8 hours on rest” culture, the function of sleep remains the same, as does its importance.
Sleep is meant to rid your brain of toxins that collect during periods of waking. Research suggests that in slow-wave sleep, once your brain oxygen needs are lower, the brain can be cleaned, unlike other organs which can be flushed of toxins and free radicals during normal functioning.
The effects of insufficient sleep have been noted on immunity as well. Research suggests that sleep increases the count of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting off infections. That’s not all either. The transfer of information from short term to long term memory happens during periods of sleep as well.
It is, therefore, logical to conclude that shunning sleep will leave you prone to disease and unprepared to take on the day. It is thus just as important as your waking hours. It makes no sense to skip or cut down on how much rest you take.
There are a host of ill effects that sleep deprivation has on your brain. When you begin your day without adequate sleep, you’re already playing a bad hand. Your brain has not cleaned itself during the night, and so the toxins and metabolites and free radicals are all impairing your brain’s optimum function. You have trouble remembering, and your body not being rested is going to have its share of problems as well.
For a moment, let’s talk about what that means for the goal you’re trying to accomplish by not sleeping. If you’re preparing for an exam, spending nights without sleeping is going to make it extremely difficult to recollect what you learned. Your brain has not got an opportunity to shift material from short term to long term memory, and so you’re going to draw a blank.
Your heart rate, body temperature, and breath are all likely to be abnormal, making you feel uneasy. Performing well in an exam is tough with your body not being on your side.
Your brain is weighed down by toxins and free radicals it has to deal with which are trying to interfere in its functioning. Getting optimum performance out of it is out of the question. So ultimately, the question is did burning the midnight oil really help?
There can be genuine reasons for you to sleep less and work hard. An emergency like a sudden exam at school or a very important project at work which can rob you of your job if left unfinished can be genuine situations for you to skip an hour or two of bedtime and stay at your desk. But that’s the thing. The keyword here is “emergency”.
A common retort is that one’s life constantly has these emergencies. If this is your case, you need to ask yourself if this is a good path for you, one you genuinely want to follow through. If not, you’ve probably taken up too much on your plate. Taking too much stress for too long adversely affects sleep quality as well.
Your body is constantly at work, even while you’re sleeping. Resting it is not something you can do over the weekend, unlike what most people believe. Disturbing your circadian rhythms can be detrimental to your well being, as we discussed earlier.
Resting 8 hours is an urban myth. Whatever be your preferred schedule for resting, it is essential to follow it religiously, and eliminate all sources on discomfort. Draw all curtains, put black tape over electric appliances you cannot switch off, and keep your phone on airplane mode and away from the bed, preferably in a separate room. Get the best innerspring mattress, especially if the one you use is lumpy, smelly or had a dent in the middle from bearing your weight every night. Avoid alcohol and coffee at night, though some might be able to use coffee right before bedtime to get a more comfortable sleep.
With adequate sleep comes better brain and body health and performance. Take care of your body’s sleep debt and watch your performance grow in every way.