Is sleep deprivation getting to you?

Here's why those extra 20 minutes in bed would've been a good idea

Unlike most modern-day luxuries — space, time, clean air — you can certainly throw money at the deficiency, but you can’t buy sleep. A good night’s rest requires currency of the abstract kind: hard labour, a calm mind, a clean conscience. No outside agency can source these things for you. But science can try, like an anxious new mother, to rock you to sleep using every wile in the book. It can adjust the temperature in your bed, block all noise, dim the lights and then watch you slumber. It can’t walk you to the land of nod, but it can point you in the general direction.

We all know what happens when you don’t visit often enough. Among other things, sleep deprivation can cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety and road accidents. On a much more superficial but still devastating level, it can also wreck your skin. A study by a British mattress company photographed 30 women, including model Jodie Kidd, after eight hours’ sleep, and then again after five consecutive nights of just six hours. The difference is stark: puffy eyes, more fine lines and wrinkles, an increase in brown spots and dark circles. Imagine what it can do to us non-models.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. Almost everyone around you has woken up before they were ready to this morning. The fact that alarm clocks run our lives is proof that we’re doing this wrong. And you can blame only so much of it on the notorious midnight Twitter time-suck. Twenty-first century homo sapiens have racked up three strikes against a restful night: we’re fighting to stay awake longer and messing up our body’s rhythm; we’re focused on quantity (the mythical 8 hours) rather than quality; and we stress too much about all the sleep we’re not getting.

The upside of downtime
Sleeplessness can do terrible things, but no one gives us any credit when we do get it right. So give yourself a round of applause for every night of sleep you managed. It may have looked to the world like you’re a drooling slacker, but actually you were busy repairing cells, parsing and organising memories, regulating your appetite, recharging your brain, building immunity and, as Shakespeare put it, knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care. Actually, the question is, what do you do the rest of the day?

Sleeping is cool
We spend a third of our lives unconscious, but scientists are still learning new things about this crucial biological process. Most research in this area is funded by the military, which is constantly seeking ways to keep soldiers performing at optimal levels in high-stress conditions. Thanks to them, we know that you can bank sleep. American researchers have found that the effects of sleep deprivation can be blunted if you got more than your usual quota for a few days leading up to the event. This is the same principle as ‘saving up’ calories before a big wedding so you can disgrace your family at the tawa mithai counter.

Another thing we now know for sure is that your sleep requirement is not negotiable. There’s a glamour attached to staying up late. Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said, “Sleep is for wimps.” Your favourite rockstar has probably uttered some variation of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Don’t listen to them — you are not the Iron Lady. It’s true: some people just need less sleep. But that’s decided by genetics, not coolth. These ‘short sleepers’ are an extremely rare breed, probably just one to three per cent of the population. Most people who claim to need little sleep are just chronically deprived (just ask them what time they wake up on Sunday; short sleepers never need to ‘catch up’). You can’t use Red Bull and cigarettes to replicate the lifestyle of someone who can thrive, not just limp by, on less than six hours’ sleep. Yes, life is unfair, off to bed with you.

It doesn’t have to be this hard
The inability to sleep, like hairfall, is one of those things it’s no point telling you not to stress about. But there might be a way to reframe your anxiety.

You don’t sleep straight through the night: We slept differently when our bodies followed the movement of the sun, before the proliferation of the light bulb. Everyone would go to bed after dusk and wake up in the middle of night for a couple of hours, before going to sleep again. During these midnight hours, they would socialise, pray or read. This window of wakefulness can be very productive for creative work; prolactin levels rise and put you in a blissful, calm state. According to A Roger Ekirch, historian and author of At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past (WW Norton & Company), this is also when our forebears got frisky, being too tired for sex when they first hit the bed. So the next time you find yourself awake at 2am and staring at the ceiling, think of how
else you could use this time.

You have trouble falling asleep: Get out of bed and do anything — except stare at a backlit screen — till you’re very sleepy again. A study in the Archives Of Internal Medicine, an American journal, found that reducing the time you spend in bed can improve your quality of sleep.

Your tracker says you’re sleeping poorly: Most sleep-trackers rely on your movements to gauge how well you’re doing. But some people tend to move more in bed than others. Sleep stages — which determine how deeply you are resting — can only be monitored through brain activity, not by how often you turn over.

You’re worried you’ll lose your edge: “While by conventional definitions of success, I was successful, by any sane definition of success, if you wake up in a pool of blood, and nobody has shot you, you are not successful.” In 2007, after Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone on the way down, she decided she needed a new way to define success. She’s now “pretty religious” about getting her eight hours. Her company, Huffington Post, a Pulitzer-winning news aggregator, recently rumoured to be valued upwards of $1 billion, seems to be coping nicely. 

Photograph Matt Jones

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