The Importance of Sleep

Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Medicine

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

Throughout my time as an undergraduate, I only recall having a few early-morning classes. Though I generally can rise early without much difficulty, one 8:00 a.m. freshman English course proved to be a bit much. Perhaps it was the fact that I commuted to campus by bus, and had to wake up much earlier than if I drove myself. Or it could be that the arrival of colder months made leaving my bed all the more difficult. In reality, a terrible habit of procrastination meant that I worked far later into the night than I should have, causing me to suffer the next morning. With my sleep cycle disrupted, I would then often nap in the afternoon, only to then work late into the night again, further exacerbating the problem. From what I know of my friends and peers, my situation is not uncommon. Since those days many years ago, I don’t know that I’ve improved at all in my sleep habits. Working as a teacher, with grading and lesson planning extending way past the school day, certainly didn’t help. And so as I write, I’m doing so not just for you (though I hope you gain at least some value from my words), but also as my own personal call to action.

A Woefully Sleep-Deprived Man, Courtesy of nextshark.com

If sleep is important, how long should we be sleeping? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of adults need a minimum of seven hours of sleep. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, has done interesting work in the field of sleep science. In his book Why We Sleep, Walker explains that sleep is “an exquisitely complex, metabolically active, and deliberately ordered series of unique stages” and is not simply “the absence of wakefulness.” Without delving into these complexities, it suffices to say that sleep helps prepare us not only to effectively take in information, but to also consolidate and protect new information after our day is over. Walker also asserts that sleep is an important factor in improving motor skills and reducing the risk of physical injury. Frighteningly, lack of sleep may actually be a predictor for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is increasingly believed to be associated with the buildup of neuron-killing proteins that would otherwise be removed from our brains during deep sleep. And while drunk driving is often the subject of public awareness campaigns, “drowsy driving” also claims thousands of lives each year. Lest you think you can makeup for lost sleep during the week with extra sleep on the weekend, the brain is not a “sleep bank.” Accumulation of sleep at one end cannot make up for a deficit at the other. We cannot pay back the debt of lost sleep, but can instead resolve now to make meaningful rest a priority.

Accepting the aforementioned benefits of sleep as accurate and valid, you can imagine my dismay when participants in an alumni panel during first-year Foundations Week discounted the importance of sleep. I paraphrase, of course, but their message was something to the effect of “get involved in everything you can now – sleep can come later.” I totally agree with and even endorse the first part of this message. We only have one and a half to two years at Thunderbird and need to make the most of it. But I completely reject the notion that we can only maximize our Thunderbird experience by minimizing our sleep time. Ultimately, I imagine that individuals who rationalize away sleep now will likely continue to do so in the future (and I am certainly guilty of this). Instead, I suggest that we actually commit to fewer activities and prioritize our lives such that sleep becomes paramount. Is that wishful thinking for busy business students? Especially for the entrepreneurially-minded, I fear that it might be.

She Makes Sleep a Priority, Courtesy of National Sleep Foundation

Since he’s already in the news so much right now, let’s look at Mr. Elon Musk as an example. Musk is arguably a visionary, and has been at the helm of several cutting-edge ventures, like SpaceX (although, admittedly, I don’t understand some of Musk’s other projects, like the flamethrowers). But the toll of Musk’s work-life imbalance has become apparent, especially this year in light of some of his stranger antics. In an interview with The New York Times this past August, Musk “choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices.” When media maven turned wellness guru Arianna Huffington sent an open letter to Musk urging restraint, the Tesla CEO responded with a 2:30 a.m. tweet: “Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.” And you better believe Musk’s supporters came to his defense. One twitter user blasted Ms. Huffington’s post as “pushing your new age hippy agenda onto others.” What I thought to be a well-intentioned post on wellness was construed by many as an attack on the entrepreneurial spirit.

I concede that the demands of school, work, family and any other host of responsibilities will often prevent us from getting a good night’s rest. I really do get it (in fact, I may or may not be writing this past my bedtime). And maybe the most distinguished members of our society, those who have reached the pinnacle of their respective fields, owe their success to working harder and longer than their more sleep-inclined peers. Even so, if we believe the science, individuals discount sleep at their own peril. I encourage you, whether you are a student, a mid-career professional or a retiree, to truly reflect on your opinions of sleep. If you recognize the crucial role sleep plays in our mental and physical health, then I imagine you will find the will to get your allotted hours.

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