Treating Sleep as an Illness: Why Our Attitude Toward Sleep is Wrong

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In what ways can we view lack of sleep as an illness?

“Sleep…Take all the time you need for each breath.” – Michael Krugman, Feldenkrais Practitioner and creator of Sounder Sleep

What happens when we sleep? It’s something we spend about a third of our lives on, but what does it do, and why do we need it? If you’ve ever watched your partner or child sleeping, you can see that not much seems to be going on—maybe a movement here and there and some steady breathing. From the outside, slumber doesn’t appear to be worth the time we spend on it. It certainly doesn’t make sense viewing sleep as an illness. I know that I’ve sacrificed my share of good hours of sleep to catch up on work or stay up late with friends. We as a culture not only neglect sleep because it is inconvenient; we actively rail against it as a weakness of character. As circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster says in his 2013 TED Talk, the 20th century brought about a negative change in how we view sleep. Today especially, there is a heightened antipathy toward sleep that is grounded in the 24-hour news cycle, the commonplace of the third-shift job, and the need to capture our every move on social media. Sleep has begun to take on the stigma of an illness.

We would be wise, however, to start taking sleep more seriously, because the truth about sleep is more—much more—than we can see from the outside. We can view lack of adequate sleep as an illness. A lot is going on inside our bodies that the naked eye can’t see when we sleep. As Moshe Feldenkrais once said, a brain without a body cannot think. But the opposite is also true—a body without a brain cannot function. This truism is spelled out by the statistics.

Though everyone’s need for sleep is different, on average, most teens and adolescents need about nine hours a night. Adults and seniors need about eight (it’s a myth that the older you get, the less sleep you need). How much do you think each of these groups actually gets? Not sure? On average, adults and seniors sleep for about six and a half hours every night. For teens, the number is even lower. The average teen sleeps only for about five hours a night! When we consider that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 years of age, it’s obvious that this is a serious problem. By viewing lack of sleep as an illness, we can start creating better habits for youth.

Because the brain uses up about a quarter of the body’s energy supply, it requires time for rejuvenation, and that’s precisely what sleep does. I think one of the reasons that we take sleep for granted so often is because we see it as wasted time. But the time is not wasted, because, unlike our bodies, our brains never stop working. In addition to solidifying and organizing our memories—this is an essential function of the brain when we have to learn new tasks—sleep literally cleans our minds. Recent studies have shown that the hours we spend in slumber are necessary to get rid of the waste that our brains produce. Like the rest of the body, the brain needs to be cleansed of toxins and waste for it to function properly.

The problem that the brain encounters in this objective is that it can’t take advantage of the lymphatic system because there is not enough room in the skull. In a way similar to how the lymphatic system filters out toxins and cellular waste, the brain uses that pathways into the brain that are already present—blood vessels. During the sleep cycle, the body pumps cerebrospinal fluid into the brain along this crisscrossing web of veins and arteries. In addition to making us feel replenished in the morning, this act of cleaning gets rid of some nasty stuff that can be detrimental to our health later on—for instance, note the link between excess amyloid-beta peptides and Alzheimer’s Disease. You can also watch a TED Talk on the subject, given by neuroscientist Jeff Iliff, here.

As the 16th-century dramatist Thomas Dekker once wrote, “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” I think this is a great metaphor for sleep because, though this chain is keeping health in place, gold is a soft metal that is easily shaped and destroyed. Let’s think of another metaphor. If you can imagine your health as a pyramid, its base would be sleep. On top of that base rests your mood, your dietary habits, your memories…the list goes on and on. These things need a strong, wide base if their tenuous balancing act is to continue. With good sleep habits, you won’t have to worry about anything toppling over. Without this proper rest, sleep as an illness takes over your life.

Now imagine that as your good sleep habits begin to deteriorate—perhaps work is becoming too strenuous—that base begins to shrink. The slope on the sides of this structure shifts ever steeper as your habits sink you further and further into the mire of sleep deprivation. You’ve now taken up a diet of junk food, caffeine, and simple carbohydrates because you feel low-energy and depressed, which then leads to weight gain and high blood pressure. You’re forgetful and have difficulty adapting to the demands of your job because your memories are no longer being processed and filed at night. Your health pyramid is practically a skyscraper now, threatening collapse at so much as a sneeze.

And it’s all completely avoidable with proper sleep. If you want to improve your sleep habits to maximize your energy and health, try these tips.

Tips for better sleep

  • Reduce your exposure to light at least 30 minutes prior to sleep.
  • When it’s time for bed, make your sleep area as dark as possible. Invest in some heavy curtains.
  • Turn down your thermostat a few degrees.
  • Put away the phone and laptop. The brightness of the screen stimulates your brain.
  • If you enjoy your caffeine, avoid it after 2 pm.
  • Be mindful at night and purposefully wind down. Get into a comfortable routine.

Healing lack of sleep as an illness:

Still can’t turn off your mind? Try focusing on your eyes. If you can feel that you are looking straight ahead when you close your eyes, try looking downward as if you are staring through bifocal glasses. If your mind drifts and your eyes move up again, direct your attention to your breathing. Exhale with purpose as you lower your eyes. Repeat the process as necessary.

Another 16th-century dramatist—you may have heard of him—named William Shakespeare also had some advice for the weary. In Julius Caesar, he tells us to “enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.” We should all be so wise to follow that advice. Our health depends on it.

Carol is a physical therapist, a co-creator of Integral Human Gait theory, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, and a Senior Trainer in Movement Intelligence. Focus, Align, Teach and Inspire! These qualities not only describe her work, but they also describe her presence. She is passionate when it comes to reconnecting learning with human function and health. Carol is in private practice at in Columbus, Indiana.


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