Sleep deprivation has me feeling a bit loopy today, my first day back home from New Brunswick. Probably because I slept for almost twelve hours last night. Combined with the two-hour nap I had when we first arrived home from the airport, that makes for a whole lot of sleep in the past 24 hours. All that shut-eye was the result of my body not being happy with a virtually sleepless night, followed by a second night with three hours sleep since I had to leave for the airport before dawn to catch my early morning flight home.

Yes, I know, compared to the sleep schedule of some of you, that’s nothing. I know. Busy people are sleep deprived. I know. It’s just accepted as a part of our modern 24/7 world. People have work, and worries, and sometimes physical pain, and way too many episodes of whatever on Netflix to keep them awake. Not to mention those of you who are parents of small children; you deserve a category of sleep deprivation all your own.

I understand that many, many people have trouble getting enough sleep. Much more trouble than I have. It’s just that I’ve never operated well on too little sleep. Even when I was young and supposedly invincible, and cramming for exams, or pulling an all-nighter to finish a university paper, or simply staying out on the town until all hours. Or later when worries about work, reliving a stressful day, or going over and over a confrontation with a student or a parent kept me awake to the wee hours, a sleep deprived night was almost always followed by an early-to-bed night and, when possible, a late-to-rise morning. I have always been unable to function on too little sleep. I’m not sure what kind of a disastrous mother I would have made, considering the impact of parenthood on parental sleep schedules. Or how I would have been able to manage a teaching career with small children at home. Probably not well.

Man and cat caught napping, 1986

We all know the effects that sleep deprivation can have on us. Without sleep our immune system becomes depressed, and we are more susceptible to colds and flu. With too little sleep our body has less chance of fighting off disease, and is less able to help us get well again. When we are sleep deprived we are more at risk of developing any number of health issues like cardiovascular disease. Harvard Medical School says that “one night without adequate sleep can elevate one’s blood pressure” for the entire next day. Sleep is the time when our body repairs damage caused by our daily activities, and our brain rests. And too little of it affects our motor skills, our emotions, memory, mood, decision making, and impulse control.

Sleep and the lack of it has been linked to weight gain and obesity. This article on the Harvard Medical School website explains why. Apparently sleep deprivation causes elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. As well, it lowers the level of leptin, a hormone which tells our brain we’ve had enough to eat, and raises levels of a biochemical called ghrelin which is an appetite stimulant. According to the article, this leaves us craving more food when we’ve actually had enough, and “feeling too tired to burn off extra calories with exercise.” And on top of that, sleep deprivation leads to increased levels of insulin, promoting fat storage, and making us more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact the article on the Harvard website concludes that getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night can increase our “mortality risk from all causes by about 15%.”

Gad. So why, oh why, when we know all this, or should know all this, do we still not get enough sleep?

One thing that the Harvard Medical School article mentions is that despite all the studies, and all the information that is available about the importance of sufficient sleep, many people who have sleep difficulties never mention this fact to their doctors. And, even more worrying, many doctors never ask.

Is this because so many of us just accept that lack of sleep is a normal part of adult life?  Aside from those of us who can’t get enough sleep due to illness, anxiety, or crying babies, factors we often can’t control… do the rest of us still see sleeplessness as something that proves we are busy, busy people. And that living the dream, getting ahead, climbing the corporate ladder necessarily involves being sleep deprived? Do we still connect too little sleep with success? Seriously?

Media mogul Arianna Huffington seems to think so. I heard her interviewed a few months ago about her book The Sleep Revolution, and then yesterday I listened to this Ted Talk where she says that getting enough sleep is the way to get ahead. I’m not sure I agree with everything she espouses, especially when she seems to link the idea of “sleep deprivation one-upmanship” with gender, implying that it’s mostly men who brag about how little they sleep. But since she is speaking at a women’s conference I guess she felt she had to spin her idea that way. Still she has a good point about how society seems to value those who deprive themselves of sleep. And paint those of us who go to bed early, or rise later, as lacking initiative, drive, or ambition. We all know what happens to Macbeth when he lets ambition take over his life, right? He doesn’t sleep, can’t sleep, in fact. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about life when he wrote in Act II, Scene II of Macbeth that sleep “knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” And poor Macbeth, with his fear, guilt, and lack of sleep, becomes unravelled that’s for sure.

I had plenty of ambition and initiative when I worked. I worked hard. Four nights a week I’d be at my desk marking for a couple of hours, and one day on the weekend would find me reading, researching and prepping for my classes. I was at school from 8:30 until 5:30 most days. Except those when I had 7:30 AM meetings, or after school parent-teacher interviews. I put in at least 50 hours a week during term time. But I never marked past 9:00 in the evening, making sure I had at least an hour to spend with Hubby before bed. And I had to be in bed by ten if I wanted to be up by 6:00 to make those 7:30 meetings. I usually slept late on Saturdays and Sundays. So… no 80 hour work weeks for me. No marking until midnight, except during exams when papers needed to be graded and final marks calculated in a very short turn around time. I worked hard, but I knew my limits. And then I retired.

I vowed that when I retired I would wake when my body said I should. These days, six in the morning is my favourite time. The time when, out of habit, I wake up, glance at the clock, sigh, and roll over, until 8:30. I love it when I realize I don’t have to get up. I’ll never understand how society sees early risers as more virtuous than us non-early morning people. And I wonder if that attitude is not the same attitude that has people thinking that sleep deprivation is a competitive sport.

Funnily enough part of Huffington’s new ethos is that people who get enough sleep are more productive, and make better leaders because, being well rested and on their game, they make better decisions. And more importantly, to me anyway, getting enough sleep is the key to staying well. And being able to have the kind of retirement I want. Not a busy, busy, I’m so busy, kind of retirement. But one where I’m as busy as I want to be. Doing things I love like blogging, and reading. Staying active, making fitness a priority, and finding time, and being fit enough and well enough, for those things that improve our quality of life and for which we’d planned, like travel.

But it’s not all smooth sailing sleep-wise in retirement. As we age getting enough sleep can present new challenges. The National Sleep Foundation website says the idea that we need less sleep as we age is a misconception. We still need the same quantity of sleep as we did when we were younger. But aging means our circadian rhythms are changing, and we may find it harder to fall asleep and harder to stay asleep. As we age we may need to adopt new habits, or techniques, to enable us to get sufficient sleep. And that includes, in my opinion, not just shrugging off sleep deprivation as a necessary part of a modern, busy life.

After four very early mornings even the beautiful Peruvian countryside could not keep me awake

Ah well… that’s easy for me to say, eh? The odd night of worry or anxiety aside, as an adult, I’ve never really had many problems falling asleep. I can fall asleep most anywhere. In cars or canoes. On buses or planes… in pretty much any moving vehicle which I’m not driving… or paddling. When we head out for the long drive down east, Hubby says that sometimes he feels as if he’s driving all by himself. I can usually stay awake long enough to help him navigate through Montreal, two hours from here… but after that… my head lolls, my eyelids droop, and I’m down for the count. And, on our recent trip to South America, even the beautiful scenery in Peru couldn’t keep me awake after four very early mornings in a row.

Sigh. I guess I’m just a girl who can’t say no to sleep when I need it.

Most of the time, anyway.

So, how about you folks? Do you have a fraught relationship with sleep? How has sleep deprivation affected your life?


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28 thoughts on “On Sleep Deprivation”

  1. Interesting article, Sue, thanks for all your research.

    What can I say? My husband says I'm turning into a cat. Our cat seems pleased about that. In retirement, my pattern seems to be that I do lights-out around midnight and wake up between 7-8. But if I feel like an afternoon nap, I take one. That's the cat bit, according to him.
    I think you have to listen to your body. It's more difficult to do that when you're working. But that didn't stop me. My younger partying self, when realising that she desperately needed a recharge, would say to her colleague, quietly, "give me 10". My younger self would then slip off into a toilet cubicle, position herself on the loo, and promptly fall asleep. Sometimes I self-woke but mostly I needed my colleague to knock on cubicle door to wake me. And then I could carry on with the day. Oh how well that system worked!
    Since then, I've recognised the importance of a brief snooze where your body needs it. And following jargon over the years, I still do a battery recharge when I feel I'm coming up against the wall of utter tiredness. It works for me.
    Hope this helps, X.

  2. Leslie in Oregon

    Sleep has been of prime importance to me ever since I worked as a crew member for an international airline. Most weeks, I would fly abroad to a place where the time was 8 or more hours earlier or later than where I had started, lay over there for 1-2 days, then return home or continue to another layover point (and, usually, another time change). For three years, I went to law school during the week and flew from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. During one of those years, I also had a 20-hour/week law job during the week. Sleep was very hard to come by (I learned to sleep sitting up during my inflight break), and by the time I retired after eight years of flying, I was pervasively exhausted. That seemed relatively mild, however, compared to the exhaustion I felt when, two years later, I became a mother for the first time. So I'm with you all the way in making getting sufficient sleep a "must do." As part of the fast-paced legal profession for thirty years, I have done a few all-nighters in order to meet deadlines, and I have paid mightily for each and will do no more. I could go on, but I must get to bed (and bliss)!

    1. You have certainly had your share of sleep-challenging professions, Leslie. The time changes and long haul flights of your earlier job must have been so difficult.

  3. I've never done well on too little sleep either. My brain feels foggy all day and I also feel nauseous. I know that sounds weird, but it's my body talking to me. These days, post menopause has me napping often due to not sleeping through the night. Naps are now my goal in life. LOL

  4. No, I love sleep and will doze, nap, snooze, slumber whenever I can. About 2pm is perfect and when my children were very small I would thank Heaven for Sesame Street every day for that blessed hour when they were happily watching and singing and I was dozing on the sofa. It saved all our lives. When I was teaching my week was rather like yours and I found that anything after 10pm was wasted work. But I still found it hard to switch off and stop being anxious. Nowadays with that job behind me, I have trained myself back into better sleeping patterns. Poor indeed but rich in sleep. Fair enough. Nobody gets everything in life.

    1. I could never do school work late at night, unless I had a specific deadline, like marks being due. But even then I usually had made a schedule to accommodate that. Nowadays I do find myself blogging until late… but that's my so much more enjoyable than marking:)

  5. Well-rested is key to my overall well-being. Love the picture of you napping. I would too after very many early risings. My two little Chihuahuas, Riley and Jacob are excellent napping partners.

  6. I just can't resist this topic of sleep. When I worked (33years), I woke up at 3:15 am for a 4:30 am shift. You get sick. You are out of synch with all the rest of the people in your life. It's definitely not good. It's your job. You do it. Period. However, now that I'm retired, you better believe I wake up with MY body rhythm and I LOVE my free morning time.

  7. I can't function without enough sleep and rest. It was main reason why I didn't choose to work in a hospital. There are people who really don't need a lot of sleep,but they are rare-the rest are deprived and tired.
    I have never studied after 9pm (and was very lucky that my son has slept almost the whole night from the beginning-although he was wide awake the rest of the day)
    It is very important to follow one's own biorhytm-if I feel that I need to go to bed at 9 or 10 o'clock,I'll go (and sometimes couldn't sleep if I "don't listen" to my clock and stay awake longer)
    Naps are very welcome,too
    I wake up around 7 AM,with the alarm-here, because I have to ,and at the seaside because I don't want to miss early mornings when everything is peaceful and beautiful

    1. I don't know how those doctors and nurses who work all night do it! On vacation and on sunny summer mornings at home, I get up earlier than at home in the winter. Must be the light.

  8. I'm a sleepy head too . It would be nice to get by on less sleep & have more time but I know my body & I'm just not nice if I don't get my eight hours . Margaret Thatcher was proud of needing only four hours , which explains a lot .
    Wendy from York

  9. I used to take a good night of sleep for granted, and even when I was a young mom up with babies during the night, I would usually fall asleep again easily after interruptions. In my late forties and now into my early fifties, my sleep has become more fragile. Usually falling asleep is not an issue, but getting back to sleep if I wake up in the wee hours is not guaranteed.

    My sleep is most in jeopardy if I am experiencing anxiety, and after a couple of extended periods of horrible insomnia, I have learned not to take on jobs, etc., that I know I will find too stressful. There will always be situations in life that will bring worry, but I'm not going to voluntarily add to those! Good nights of sleep are too precious to be compromised.

    I love the thought of waking up at 6 a.m. out of habit, then rolling over and sleeping for a couple of additional hours. I look forward to seeing what kind of a rhythm I'll settle into in retirement!

    — Denise L.

    1. Fragile is a good word for what happens to our sleep as we age. Good for you to be wise enough to value sleep, and make choices accordingly.

  10. I have have always needed lots of sleep and was never one for late night cramming for exams or grading. However, since a traumatic event 20 years ago I have been plagued with insomnia. I've been to medical sleep experts and therapists, but with little success. I really envy people who can sleep anywhere at any time! BTW, I did teach college classes with young children — I wonder what I said on some days!

    1. Sorry to hear about your sleep issues, Lynn. I've been lucky to have had few of those.
      And although I've never had insomnia, I know I was a bit incoherent at school on mornings following Parent-Teacher evenings, when I didn't get home until late. Stopping in mid-sentence and having to ask my grade nines what the heck I'd been talking about:)

  11. I love your photo of your husband with kitty. I am big on napping and usually set the alarm for 20 minutes for a fine afternoon snooze. If I don't get proper sleep at night, I really feel it the next day. I enjoyed this post.

  12. Lucky for me sleep has never been a real problem…although I never, ever take naps (I feel too disoriented when I wake up) and do need a certain amount of sleep. But yes, our sleep cycles do change as we age. I think everyone wakes up during the night after a certain age! And, having always been a morning person, I am even more of one now. The most difficult time ever was, yes, when my daughter was born. She was actually quite easy and did sleep, but not always when I was ready!

    1. I take naps if I need to but do not like the feeling of sluggishness that results from a long nap in the afternoon. But twenty minutes of drifting, as I call it, feels good.

  13. I hate going to sleep. It's funny but in my 60's I have become a child again when it come to bed time. Once I am in bed and fall asleep I so wish I would not wake for the full 7 1/2 or 8 hours I need and want. I have always been a terrible sleeper though so what do I expect.

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