Sleep Deprivation is Eating Your Brain
Her daughter found her in a pool of blood.
Later they found her cheekbone broken.
She needed five stitches on her right eye.
While checking email and making phone calls, the woman fainted with exhaustion. Hitting her head on her desk.
The experience changed her attitude toward work.
“We are living as a country under the collective delusion that in order to succeed, we have to burn out along the way.”
Already hugely successful, the woman found that prioritizing sleep took her to whole new level of success.
“I’m not saying that you can’t succeed by burning out. But you can succeed much more effectively, and much more sustainably, and with much less damage to your health and your relationships.
That’s why they tell you on airplanes, put your own oxygen mask on first.”
And she dramatically found out what happens when we constantly deprive our bodies of sleep. When we ignore one of our body’s basic needs.
We pay deeply for it. Perhaps not in the short term. But certainly in the long run.
Sleep deprivation is more common than you and I realize. We don’t hear about it because it’s an underreported problem.
How sleep deprivation affects our brains
A sleep study run by Michele Bellesi from Marche Polytechnic University in Italy explains that to keep our brains in order, our brains need to do housekeeping.
Astrocyte cells get rid of unneeded synapses in our brains to ‘remodel’ it. Microglial cells clean damaged cells and debris.
The team found astrocytes were more active in mice who had lost 8 hours of sleep, than mice who were well-rested:
“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.” — Michele Bellesi (in New Scientist: The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation)
They found astrocyte remodeling of our brains isn’t the problem: we could all do with a rewire now and then.
But what the team found worrying was microglial cell activity — increased activity of microglial cells has been linked to Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders, such as dementia.
Long term sleep deprivation is dangerous. It literally eats our brains.
It’s an underreported problem. But one we encounter often in our daily lives.
The stigma attached to sleep
“Oh, I don’t need more than 4 hours of sleep.”
You’ve heard it before.
Your mates or colleagues proudly sharing how little sleep they get. And how much coffee they drink — to get that promotion, launch their book, get High Distinctions in their exams — or run a household, career, kids, and do volunteer work.
It’s as if functioning on a ridiculously little amount of sleep earns a person bragging rights.
As if whoever sleeps less — and does more — wins.
Entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said:
“Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money. But you cannot get more time.”
“Don’t stay in bed unless you can make money in bed”. That’s George Burns, American comedian, actor, singer, and writer.
And from Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates:
“I envy people who thrive on three or four hours of sleep a night. They have so much more time to work, learn, and play.”
It’s no wonder that many of us believe success is related to doing more. And sleeping less.
So much to do, so little time
For many years I believed success was linked to hard work, which meant long days and very little sleep.
In my 20s I thought success was about doing as much as humanly possible.
To be active. To work up to 5 jobs in 2 different careers at a time. To run good times in fun runs. Lift heavy weights at the gym. Row. Practice kung fu. Tai chi. Yoga. Bake. Travel. Catch up with friends every week. To do, do, do.
I didn’t care much for sleep. I learnt to live with my insomnia.
After all that, I still didn’t feel successful.
I burnt myself out.
I could barely stay awake past 8pm. I didn’t feel like putting on a front for anyone. So I stopped seeing people. And doing everything except for 1 job and restorative yoga.
I saw a sleep doctor who introduced me to the term ‘sleep hygiene’. From there, I worked to top up my negative sleep bank.
It took me 4 years.
Now in my late 30s, I’ve regressed slightly.
I’m still a workaholic. And I still have trouble making sleep a priority.
Combine that with being a business owner and a parent, and there’s the perfect recipe for another burn out.
I’ve constantly surprised myself that I don’t just fall over in a heap from exhaustion.
I’ve noticed a huge difference in how I act and how I feel when I’ve stayed up late to work after putting my daughter to bed.
My words don’t come out right.
I take feedback as criticism and feel upset and negative. I get impatient with friends and don’t empathize with their problems as well.
I snap at my husband for not doing the dishes, or lose my shit with my daughter for taking too long to get dressed.
I struggle to get into any sort of writing flow.
I feel slow, negative, and grumpy. Emotional.
And I turn to chocolate, biscuits, and muffins to get through the afternoon slump (I’ve termed this time of day: choc o’clock).
And when I do get to sleep I struggle. I struggle with thoughts about whether how to generate more leads.
School functions to attend this week.
How to weave the sections together on my latest draft.
Research for a new business idea.
When I’ll slot in the grocery shopping this week.
I take far too long to fall asleep. And when it finally happens…
…my daughter storms in to use the bathroom and demands I walk her down the hallway back to her room at 2am. Then we repeat this again when she has a blood nose at 4am. And a nightmare at 5am.
Unsurprisingly, I’m cranky the next day. And for many days afterward.
Getting a good night’s sleep is much harder than it sounds
What I have realized is sleep takes work.
I’ve realized that financial and career-related success don’t mean a damn thing if I’m not happy and healthy enough to enjoy it.
I’ve realized getting a good night’s sleep needs to be my daily success metric.
I finally understand: our brains need regular, good sleep for us to function well.
Sleep needs to be a priority.
So I’m committed to doing all I can to get a full night’s sleep more often.
Who else prioritizes sleep?
“If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra “productive” hours, but that productivity might be an illusion. When you’re talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity.”
Bill Gates is another sleep convert. He explains in a Microsoft FAQ:
“I used to work all night in the office, but it’s been quite a while since I lived on catnaps. I like to get seven hours of sleep a night because that’s what I need to stay sharp and creative and upbeat.”
Bezos and Gates are great examples of the proven links between sleep, leadership performance — and a healthy bottom line.
And out of the office, champion tennis player Roger Federer shares how he is still going strong at 37 years old, in a sport filled with teen, and twenty-something hotshots.
“…sleeping has become quite important. I make sure I sleep enough, as well. Because I believe it’s really the sleep that gives you energy again down the road.”
We may not be CEOs of billion-dollar companies or champion athletes, but get a good night’s sleep, and every one of us can feel like a billion bucks.
We can feel like champions. And that can make all the difference to our day. Our job. Our business. Our dreams. Our life.
That’s because sleep gives us abilities we take for granted.
In the book Why We Sleep, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, and the Director of its Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, Matthew Walker explains that sleep is crucial for our health, well-being, and longevity.
Sleep affects our learning ability, body functions, and improves our memory.
It affects our ability to make logical decisions and our psychological and emotional health.
Walker argues that “…our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia...”
Sleep is a luxury we can all afford.
Let’s make it a priority.
In The Mission podcast “Why Sleep is the #1 Health Hack”, CEO Chad Grills passionately points out that if the people around us make us feel lazy or weak for getting good sleep — for taking care of our health — we need to rethink who we spend time with.
Like Walker, he warns us not to be “engaged in the cult of slow suicide”.
He encourages us to separate ourselves from the group — especially when the group is made up of people who are content to let themselves go.
Don’t let sleep deprivation eat your brain
In societies that respect those who do more and sleep less, it can be hard to make sleep a priority.
Yet depriving our bodies of sleep over the long term has a devastating impact on our bodies: long term sleep deprivation eats our brains. Literally.
Don’t succumb to peer pressure when it comes to sleep.
We need to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep without the stigma of sleep. Without being embarrassed. Or falling prey to the stigma that we’re lazy.
There are plenty of practical tips from credible sources to help you get a good night’s sleep. Such as Dr. Stephanie Estima’s evening routine in Sleep your way to the top and A Scientists’ Guide to Better Sleep by Jamie Friedlander.
Take what works. Toss out what doesn’t.
And if you’re still having trouble, it may be worth seeing a sleep doctor as I have done. But from experience, you will hear the same advice as these articles offer.
Let’s stop living on survival mode. Let’s stop our brains from being eaten alive.
And have a good night!
“…as we are facing all the multiple crises in our world at the moment, what is good for us on a personal level, what’s going to bring more joy, gratitude, effectiveness in our lives and be the best for our own careers, is also what is best for the world.
So I urge you to shut your eyes, and discover the great ideas that lie inside us; to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.”— Arianna Huffington (In her TED Talk ‘How to succeed? Get more sleep’.