Why we Need to Stop Glorifying Sleep Deprivation

Outside the classroom before any big test or before a big deadline, it is not uncommon to hear joking or complaining phrases such as: ‘I haven’t slept all week’ or ‘I was up until 3am revising’ or ‘lol sleep is for the weak’. We also hear these comments around the common room (particularly if you stand near the coffee machine) or in our first period lessons. In fact, I don’t think I go a day without somebody commenting on how tired they are, or how little sleep they’ve been getting.

We are a generation of self-deprecators; it seems to be our chief form of comedy. But these comments are neither self-deprecating nor comedic. All too often, we ‘joke’ about our minimal sleep and exhaustion as a form of bragging. Saying ‘I haven’t slept all week’ is another way of saying ‘I’ve been studying so hard, I’ve got such a busy life, look at how much self-control I have’. While this comparison may seem dramatic and harsh, it is not far-fetched in the #grind #hustle culture we live in.

I’m not here to preach. I definitely subscribed to this outlook for a long time. I have never been the type to pull all-nighters or stay up absurdly late revising, but I definitely assumed that 6 or 7 hours of sleep per night could suffice. I have a sticker on my wardrobe from Brandy Melville saying ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ and I would quite often tell myself ‘no rest for the wicked!’.

My outlook began to shift when I read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. It was first recommended to me by my father during my GCSEs. I was getting about 7 hours of sleep each night and waking up very early. For some, this may seem perfectly acceptable, however, my father recognised a destructive habit. He nagged about the book for a month until I agreed to read it. I continued reading and eventually did some extended research until I landed upon my current belief: glorifying sleep deprivation is destructive, dangerous, and tragic.

Teenagers are recommended 8-10 hours of sleep each night, but one survey suggested that only 1 in 10 American teens were getting these precious hours of sleep. These statistics are why the sleep researcher Dr Wendy Troxel believes that sleep deprivation in American teens is an ‘epidemic’. Sleep deprivation is an epidemic around the world because a lack of sleep affects every area of mental and physical health imaginable.

Getting less than 5 hours of sleep is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level above the legal driving limit. Imagine going into your first period lesson after getting a ‘bad’ night’s sleep with the same effects as coming into school intoxicated. In fact, severe sleep deprivation has very similar effects to those of alcohol on the brain and body. I observed this at Lima airport on my World Challenge trip to Bolivia this summer. I was entering my third day on a total of 5 hours of sleep, and I found I could hardly walk straight after getting out of security. My vision blurred and I could not be trusted to drive a car or sit through a maths exam. The sad truth is that all too many British and American teenagers see the horrible effects of sleep loss as normal. Some people boast about being ‘used to’ little sleep, as if their bodies can adapt to regular sleep loss. While the human body is incredible, it cannot adapt to regular sleep loss, you can just normalise the symptoms. Irritability, exhaustion, lack of attention, moodiness, constant hunger, and poor memory function are often assumed to be inherited traits, but can all be linked to chronic sleep deprivation.

The brain benefits in innumerable ways from sufficient sleep. Being fully rested provides enormous benefits to an individual’s memory function. I find this to be particularly important given that many teenagers will excuse a few hours of sleep in order to revise. The sad irony here is that the lost sleep will provide no advantage to an individual’s test scores. One study used a short 90-minute nap to analyse the differences in memory ability and sleep. The group which had taken a nap before learning a set of facts had a 20% better capacity to recall these facts later in the day than the group which skipped the nap. Even more fascinating is the benefits of sleeping the night after learning a set of information. Sleep helps ‘sort’ information from short- to long-term memory. A good night’s sleep is the difference between shoving your hand-written essay in a pile of scrap paper and saving it in a well-organised file system (and also saving it online). The research strongly suggests that a good night’s sleep before and after a test will help store the information more safely.

Furthermore, sleep aids attention span like nothing else. Even if you stay up late revising and manage to gather the information needed for the exam, your ability to perform well on that exam is greatly reduced. As described above, sleep loss can be compared to intoxication. I doubt many teachers would suggest taking a shot (or two) before stepping into the GCSE exam room.

Some of the effects of sleep loss affect us in the short-term (such as attention span) and some affect us in the long-term. There is research to suggest that insufficient sleep decreases the number of natural killer cells circulating about the body. These are the cells which can target and kill cancer cells. A European study with almost 25 000 participants showed that sleeping 6 hours or less per night increased your risk of developing cancer by 40%. If this danger does not seem immediate enough, there are plenty of short-term dangers to limited sleep.

For all of the athletes at WHS, it is strongly suggested to sleep 8-10 hours per night. Good sleep helps lower blood pressure and strengthens the heart, as well as aiding with recovery time. I also find that vanity is a good scare tactic to help encourage more sleep. While I do not believe that any girl at WHS should worry about their weight, limited sleep is strongly correlated with poor eating habits and a lower metabolism. It is easy to assume that we burn more calories by staying awake, however, we only burn an extra 147 kcals by staying awake all night, which is strongly offset by the extra calories that sleep-deprived individuals frequently indulge in. On top of that, sleep-deprived individuals are also more likely to lose muscle rather than fat when trying to lose weight. While no girl should have to waste energy on calories or weight loss (there are so many more interesting things to care about!), good sleep can help foster good habits and a healthy relationship with food for the future.

I would not be surprised if certain individuals believe that a good night’s sleep can be replaced by a cup of coffee or an energy drink. While there is little harm in one cup of coffee in the morning, it is by no means a replacement for sleep. Caffeine provides none of the brain- and body-benefiting charms that sleep provides.  As Dr Wendy Troxel wisely says, our tendency to replace sleep with caffeine has created “an entire population or tired but wired youth”.

The danger here is seeing “tired but wired” as a symptom of hard work. We talk about sleep loss as if it is a sign of self-discipline. But I do not find anything amusing or admiring about somebody telling me how little sleep they get. People don’t boast about their alcoholism or their diabetes. People don’t talk about how little exercise they get in the same way they talk about how little sleep they get. Why should we act as if sleep deprivation is just a symptom of the hard-worker when sleep deprivation leads to so many harmful symptoms. In my humble opinion, bragging that you’ve gotten 9 hours of sleep each night is a far better boast. If an individual is getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep (note that 8 hours is the minimum– like getting a C on your test) I believe that shows their ability to work really hard during the day and prioritise the right things.

I fear I may begin to sound overly preaching. I am not the patron saint of sleep nor am I an expert in the field of sleep loss. I don’t even get enough sleep. But I know that even when I do get less sleep than what is recommended, I try to encourage myself to not think of my exhaustion as a symbol of hard work. If you continue to sleep less than 8 hours, at least don’t encourage others to do so by boasting about it.

Sources:

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker (a must read!)

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/california-pushing-back-school-start-times-move-could-sweep-nation-n1068641

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/26/uk-teens-exercise-screen-time-guidelines

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/sleep-tips-for-teenagers/

https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/teens-and-sleep

Sleepy teens: A public health epidemic | Wendy Troxel | TEDxManhattanBeach

What would happen if you didn’t sleep? – Claudia Aguirre