Nov 17th, 2022, 11:00 AM

In Defense of Sleep

By Megan Addeo
Image credit: Megan Addeo
School systems and corporate power structures are screwing with our sleep.

“Ten days of six hours of sleep a night was all it took to become as impaired in performance as going without sleep for twenty-four hours straight,” explains Matthew Walker, scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.

My fascination with sleep accelerated in November 2021, having recently finished Walker’s book. At the time, I had been working in a high-pressure job for a large biotechnology company for about three years, and it took me nearly two of those years to overcome imposter syndrome. It wasn’t until I had a marathon on the calendar that I became entirely fed up with my sleep deprivation. I started saying no to assignments and meetings that would mean I’d work yet another 10-hour day, which ultimately infringed on what, at that point, I considered to be my only “dispensable time”: sleep.

Image credit: Jennifer Addeo

You could say I gulped the Kool-Aid on trending sleep science after reading Walker’s book; I exercised earlier in the day, avoided alcohol and caffeine, started using Headspace (an app that specializes in meditation), surrendered my devices as soon as I could (this one proved to be difficult with work demands), and initiated a mindful bedtime routine. I read and listened to endless books and podcasts about sleep (some of my favorites are mentioned at the end of this article). I even went as far as ordering an Oura ring. Excessive? Maybe. But it awakened me to the truth about my sleep: I was achieving far fewer hours than I thought.

According to Walker’s book and TED Talk (above), sleep is our superpower. I’d go as far as to say sleep is my Achilles' heel. In the midst of my sleep-obsession, a few thoughts dawned on me: Why the hell was I just figuring out the meaning and importance of “quality” sleep? Why are we stuck in a vicious cycle of student and employee sleep deprivation? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

I feel cheated. And others in my network do too. “I didn’t receive formal education on sleep. Maybe it was mentioned in health class in middle school for one class period,” said Megan Sinanis, an AUP graduate student. “I have done a little research online about the topic, but with our modern-day schedules, it is impossible to actually meet the sleep standard.”

Even with a bit of self-study, getting the prescribed seven to nine hours of sleep seems like a no-brainer. Yet, 35.2% of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping less than seven hours a night on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Within my own network, 46% of 159 respondents who participated in a poll conducted for the purposes of this article reported that they slept seven or fewer hours on a Sunday. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about what this might say about the amount of sleep achieved on other evenings.

I sleep, you sleep, we all sleep. But what does it actually mean to get a quality night's sleep? Americans receive little-to-no formal sleep education. Sleep has the greatest impact on the daily health of our bodies and brains. When we get both the appropriate quantity (hours) and quality (drifting off within 30 minutes, achieving uninterrupted restful and restorative cycles that result in feeling restored and energized upon waking up in the morning) of sleep, we achieve major health benefits. Sleep boosts immunity, moderates gut bacteria and appetite, lessens risk of serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and improves your mood, optimizes learning and memory capacity, and enhances emotional composure, to name a few benefits. On the other hand, sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, and other physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges. Shouldn’t people receive this essential information about their bodies as soon as possible?

The educational system robbed us of learning not only by neglecting to teach us anything on the topic of sleep, but also by interrupting our REM sleep with early start-times. The CDC provides guidance acknowledging that students aren’t getting enough sleep (six out of 10 middle schoolers aren’t getting enough sleep) and suggests schools can take certain steps like providing sleep education and reviewing school start times. What we actually need are standardized policies across the country. Only some states are making changes. In 2016, Seattle altered their school start times, leading to students getting an extra 34 minutes of sleep on school nights. And more recently, Lisa L. Lewis, parenting journalist and author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen helped make progress in this area. She set the alarm that led to California enacting a law that public and charter middle schools cannot have start times earlier than 8:00 a.m., and for high schools, 8:30 a.m. Other states have open bills on the topic, but what’s taking so long?

Image credit: Peter Nestor

Higher education systems and corporate workplaces have extreme expectations and a lack of boundaries that contribute to the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. Since we aren’t formally educated on the topic, the lack of appropriate expectations seeps into higher education systems and the workplace. Certain systems in place leave little wiggle-room for optimizing sleep quality. Take medical school students, for example. Alison Neely, a fourth-year medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine said that “it works differently depending on the hospital and your specialty. Some places work 12 [hour shifts]. So 7am-7pm, or vice versa. The shift I currently work is eight hours but we progressively change schedules: two 7am-3pms, two 3pm-11pms, two 11pm-7ams. We slowly get later and then get a full day off before starting over. It definitely messes with our circadian rhythms. Plus, in years two and three, after a shift, I went home to study for Boards.” My high school biology class pummeled any hope of a future in medicine (wonder how much this had to do with my sleep deprivation…) but if it hadn’t, I probably would have called it quits being unable to handle the reckless medical school sleep schedules. 

Sleep deprivation is also normalized in many parts of the corporate world. Andrew Meylan, a senior associate at an investment banking firm said, “on average, I get five to six high-quality hours of sleep each night. This is pretty standard for my colleagues who work in investment banking. 5 or so hours of sleep a night…for years.” Yikes. In March 2022, Gallup reported, “Workers who typically get a poor night's sleep -- estimated to be 7% of the U.S. workforce -- report more than double the rate of unplanned absenteeism compared with other workers, resulting in an estimated $44.6 billion in lost productivity each year.” Earth to the corporate world, when will you get the hint that we’re long past the days of sleep deprivation being a rite of passage? Your employees need more sleep.

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Many people told me, through a survey conducted for the purposes of this article, that when they sleep well, they wake up feeling:

Image credit: Megan Addeo

I want to wake up feeling these ways more often. There are countless articles and podcasts being published about the trending topic of sleep, and many individuals, including myself, have benefited greatly from exploring them. But if sleep is to be our superpower as Walker suggests, we must begin with education and reconfiguring societal every-day practices. Next, we ought to bring in the big guns (i.e. healthcare and insurance companies) to ensure efforts are incentivized and sustained. “Sleep is not a disposable luxury–it’s a non-negotiable biological necessity,” said Walker in a Rich Roll podcast episode. Sleep is a foundational process that we can actually change, but we need to get the right people on our side.

For those who haven’t yet read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, here’s your cue. And here’s your reminder to clock more than seven hours of sleep tonight.