Who Needs Sleep When There’s So Much to Do?
In our fast-paced culture, busyness has became a badge of honor. Somehow, getting more hours of work into the day has taken precedence over sleep time at night. (source, source, source, source, source) Alas, we are discovering that attaining this medal of distinction may not have been the golden ticket we once thought it was.
According to the Sleep Foundation, the average workday is 9.5 hours. In 2008, the Sleep in America Poll revealed that many people were also spending an additional four hours a week working at home. This has led to an hour and a half of less sleep on workdays than on non-workdays.
In an updated survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 32.6% of working adults reported sleeping six or fewer hours per night in 2017-2018, up from 28.4% in 2008-2009. This is less than the recommended seven to nine hours. (source)
How has this sacrifice in sleep impacted our productivity and mental and physical health in the long run?
These are questions that will be answered in this series of “Who Needs Sleep.”
Achieving the Status of Busyness
How did busyness become so glorified in our modern culture?
A 2017 article in the Journal of Consumer sought to explore the perceptual and cultural shifts on why working more took precedence over other aspects of our lives. As summarized in VeryWellmind:
Research indicates that an individual’s perceived level of busyness may be heavily connected to their self-worth, as well as how others view their status.
Individuals who are busy by choice may feel needed, in demand, and important, thus elevating their feelings of self-worth.
Culturally, there has been a shift in status perception in that material objects and goods are no longer the only indicator of one’s social standing. Now, individuals who are busy at work, are overworked, and have a real lack of leisure time are perceived as higher status.
When we are in constant engagement with work, the digital world, news, and information, our brains can become over-stimulated. This “rush” of running on adrenaline makes us feel we don’t need to take a time-out. As a result, our minds stay revved up. This further prevents us from being able to rest and we stay occupied. In fact, the term “busy brain syndrome” was coined to explain this vicious cycle of an overtaxed, bombarded mind that can’t turn off.
Unfortunately, this excessive busyness has taken its toll. It has led to burnout and negatively impacted our emotional, physical, and relationship health. (source, source, source, source)
Perhaps this is one reason why almost 1 in 5 (about 17%) Americans reported taking sleeping medications in 2020. Considering that hypnotics are meant to be used only for short-term, and have some intense side effects, the temporary status gain of being busy taking priority over our long-term wellbeing is an alarming trend.
The Trade Off: Does Tiredness Really Mean Better Productivity?
In the wellness sphere, the trade-off between sleep for work has become a talking point of contention. Influencers are now touting the research that, in fact, we’ve been chasing a lie. Staying up late to get things done actually makes us less productive, not more! (source, source, source, source, source) (In an ironic twist, most of these experts’ biographies are so long that you wonder how its possible that they get the shut-eye they advocate for!)
As stated in the article, “The Link Between Sleep and Job Performance” by the Sleep Foundation:
Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling tired, less creative, and make it more difficult to stay focused on important projects.
Sacrificing sleep for work, then working more to make up for lost productivity can become an exhausting cycle.
Fortunately, understanding the links between sleep and job performance can empower people with the knowledge needed to end this pattern. Creating a boundary between work and home life can be challenging in the beginning, but it’s an important step towards both better sleep and more consistent job performance.
How Lack of Sleep Impacts Work and Brain Function
Evidence has revealed that trying to work while underslept undercuts the time gained on the job with poorer performance. Without the proper amount of sleep, neurons in the brain become overworked. Even just an acute lack of sleep impairs thinking, causes memory and concentration problems, slows physical reactions, increases emotional reactivity, and disrupts the brain’s metabolic processes. (source, source, source, source, source, source source)
In fact, it’s been found that short-term sleep deprivation can disrupt the normal functioning of your hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning. This brain region that helps with retention of short and long-term information also helps us to navigate directions and move through space. (The latter is one reason why you may be clumsier and prone to accidents with lack of sleep.)
Cutting sleep short also disrupts neuronal pruning and removing metabolic waste from neurons, both of which are needed for proper brain performance and memory formation. The brain’s waste removal system is called the glymphatic system and it is critical for the brain’s and body’s homeostasis. If there is impairment in the glymphatic system, from aging, lack of sleep, and other factors, it can cause decreased clearance of amyloid plaques. This makes the aging brain more vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases.
Sleep is also associated with processing emotions and assisting with mood regulation. Therefore, lack of sleep can cause negative psychological effects and influence how one processes emotional cues. As stated in Psychology Today:
In a recent study, researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) identified that heightened activation of the amygdala is responsible for disturbing emotion regulation and increasing anxiety from lack of sleep. The researchers found that just one night of sleeplessness changes your ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources necessary for objective cognitive processing.
The researchers stated: (bold emphasis mine)
“We revealed a change in the emotional specificity of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with detection and valuation of salient cues in our environment, in the course of a cognitive task.
These results reveal that, without sleep, the mere recognition of what is an emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted.
This state of heightened emotional reactivity, along with the detrimental mood shifts, can take an unwelcome toll on one’s interactions with coworkers, loved ones, and all relationships.
Long-Term Effects of Sleep Loss
Chronically, sleep deprivation can lead to additional severe consequences. These include an increased risk of: (source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source source)
- Sickness and immune system dysfunction
- Metabolic dysregulation and diabetes
- Brain fog
- Problems with thinking and memory
- Cognitive decline and processing issues
- Mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression
- Economic decline
- Cravings and weight changes
- Cardiovascular disease (i.e., stroke, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease)
Some Basic Tips for Better Sleep
In a follow up post, I’ll review more on the benefits of sleep, with some highlights on hormonal effects. Then, I’ll offer 11 tips on how to get better slumber according to a sleep neuroscientist.
For now, here’s some basic sleep hygiene suggestions from Mayo clinic:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. This will keep your circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) more stable.
- Avoid large meals and frequent fluids before bed to prevent issues with falling and staying asleep.
- Create a restful environment to allow your brain and body to calm down prior to bedtime. Turn down the lights a few hours before slumber to optimize melatonin production.
- Limit naps, if they keep you from feeling sleepy at bedtime.
- Engage in movement, yet avoid it too close to slumber, so you don’t get wound up.
- Manage worries that keep you ruminating and awake. You can try writing them out in a journal, using EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), and/or implementing aromatherapy to assist with calming the brain and body.
Summary: Sleep Over Work May Be the Best Tradeoff
The trade offs of losing sleep for work are profound. It may feel like you are gaining ground in productivity and status with busyness. Yet, being underslept negatively impacts work performance, brain health, cognitive function, emotional balance, relationships, and overall wellness.
If you are feeling you need to do things in order to have value, exploring this connection with a counselor or professional could be helpful. Adding to this, carving out more sleep time and breaking the “busy brain syndrome” cycle could also uplift your mood and enhance your self-perception.
You deserve to take care of yourself, and getting rest and rejuvenation is vital for you to live a more balanced and happier life. That being said, don’t let this information stress you out about getting the perfect amount of sleep.
Trust your body’s natural ebbs and flows and, if needed, get support for better slumber with a professional. A naturopathic and functional medicine doctor can help you find and correct the underlying reasons why you can’t get some shut-eye.
Please share your thoughts and comments below.
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal, Mood, and Digestive Support
- Free resources and more education on essential oils and mind-body wellness are available to you here.
- An Integrative Mental Health and Stress Resource Guide.
- Tools for coping with isolation and separation.
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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
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