5 Reasons to Prioritize Sleep

I recently finished Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. It’s changed my view of sleep and I have a new focus on making it a priority in my life. If fact, since finishing the book over two months ago, I can only think of one night when I stayed up past 9:30 PM. I have always been a lark (someone who rises early) and 9 PM was my standing bedtime for decades although I made exceptions for parties, movies, travel and events.  Since finishing the book and realizing the importance of sleep in my life and wishing I had read the book before raising my children into adulthood, I have staked out sleep as priority one.

Here are 5 reasons to prioritize sleep:

Cognitive Performance

Before reading Walker’s book, I figured that 7 hours of sleep on most nights was pretty good.  I thought I was a slumbering bad ass. Apparently, 7 hours isn’t enough. As written by Walker, “After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours. Three full nights of recovery sleep (i.e., more nights than a weekend) are insufficient to restore performance back to normal levels after a week of short sleeping. Finally, the human mind cannot accurately sense how sleep-deprived it is when sleep-deprived.” So even if you are consistently sleeping 7 hours a night, you are diminishing your cognitive ability. This gives me pause. I wonder just how much I could have accomplished in my life if I had been getting 8 hours of sleep on a consistent basis.

Immune System

I think of the times I’ve tried to recover from surgery or the flu, sleep has been the single best ingredient for repairing my body. As Walker posits, “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.” As I write this, we’ve been 18 months into a pandemic. I have been working almost exclusively remotely and have had a much greater sleep opportunity because of the lack of commuting and travel. I haven’t been sick. Not even a cold in that time frame. Yes, I’m vaccinated and am rarely in a crowd, but perhaps it’s my focus on sleep that’s been a boost to my immunity.

Driving

This is the single most shocking statistic from the book. Alcohol consumption and sleep deprivation had the same impact on driving skills. Drinking and lack of sleep together? It’s abysmal. Walker wrote, “It is disquieting to learn that vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.” Since reading the book, I have made it a priority to not drive after dusk if I can help it. I’m concerned about my driving and everyone else on the road.  Lack of sleep is unilateral in its affects. No one is exempt from its affects.

Learning

A good night’s sleep has a powerful impact on your ability to learn and retain information. Walker espoused, “If you don’t sleep the very first night after learning, you lose the chance to consolidate those memories, even if you get lots of “catch-up” sleep thereafter. In terms of memory, then, sleep is not like the bank. You cannot accumulate a debt and hope to pay it off at a later point in time. Sleep for memory consolidation is an all-or-nothing event.” Sleep has a way of hardwiring the information you learn into your memory bank.  If you lose that opportunity by pulling an all-nighter;  the opportunity is lost forever. 

Emotional Regulation

I’ve been sober for over four years now. Alcohol has an enormous effect on quality of sleep and restorative REM sleep.  I know my sleep quality is better over the last four years and I believe it’s had an impact on my ability to regulate my emotions. I’m not saying I never get angry or upset, but I do feel much more able to roll with the punches. As written by Walker, “More specifically, the coolheaded ability to regulate our emotions each day—a key to what we call emotional IQ—depends on getting sufficient REM sleep night after night. (If your mind immediately jumped to particular colleagues, friends, and public figures who lack these traits, you may well wonder about how much sleep, especially late-morning REM-rich sleep, they are getting.)” I’m fortunate. Between getting sober and working from home, I’ve been able to make sleep a priority and the impact has paid off.

While reading the book, I realized that I needed to give myself a 9-hour sleep “opportunity”. As my iWatch sleep app “AutoSleep” captures, I’m not sleeping the whole time in bed. I’ve worked hard in setting boundaries for my sleep opportunity each night and my average sleep length has increased to 8 hours and 2 minutes. It’s had an impact. I feel healthy, rested, agile and happier. I must give a shout out to my boyfriend, Roy, and my dog, Baci, as I have been pretty hard core about maintaining my 9-hour sleep opportunity.  What would it take for you to get more sleep?

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