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A life without sleep: Are you pushing yourself too hard?

Damien McGloin By Damien McGloin Published on July 18, 2016

The debate over the need for sleep is ongoing and it is unlikely it will ever stop. The need for rest is frequently overlooked and when you feel overwhelmed sleep is usually the first sacrifice you make. Even as I’m writing now I can feel the discomfort behind my eyes and the sense that my mind is clouded. It is easy to convince myself that I am capable of moving beyond this feeling by making more coffee but this attitude is harmful.

A study conducted in 2003 (Van Dongen, Maislin, et. Al) found that by restricting sleep to 6 hours over a two week period the test subjects suffered cognitive performative deficits equivalent to up to two nights without sleep. This is rather shocking considering how easy it is to limit sleep by this amount during demanding periods at work or university. There is a false confidence that can come from being in your twenties. There is a sense that you are young and capable of handling a large workload. At least that is how I justify my attitude towards sleep.

This applies not just to people in my age category though. It is a problem which cuts across all divisions and unifies us in a way that is more depressing than I would like. The consequences can be more severe than a feeling of drowsiness, red eyes and frustration towards loud noises or ninety percent of the people you encounter in your daily life. Research has shown links between chronic partial sleep loss and diabetes as well as obesity (Knutson, Spiegel, et. al 2007). The reason seems to lie in a combination of reduced energy output, an altered glucose metabolism and a poorly regulated diet.

The advent of a twenty-four hour society is surely responsible to an extent. In the city of Seoul I can find not only bars and clubs but movie theatres and convenience stores open all night. There’s a simple joy to walking by a river at 3am with a hard-boiled egg. It’d be unfair for me to blame hard-boiled eggs for my problems though as tempting as that may be. In fact I should probably be able to find a better vice and something which makes me sound edgier but that’s just not my style.

Societal pressure is increasingly a part of our world and it drives us to work harder, earn more and build something from the opportunities given to us. This pressure can be demanding though and sometimes we lose a part of ourselves by grasping for more. We feel too exhausted and numb to enjoy our work and our free hours can become precious to us. We cling to them and feel somber as we wake up in the morning, pour our first cup of coffee and prepare for the challenges ahead.

Many of us find an escape from this pressure in the form of sports, alcohol or in my case video games. I found myself increasingly drawn in by any kind of fantasy which provided a deep lore and addictive gameplay. My true poison was the dark souls series which is notorious for its difficulty. I attempted to balance a busy work schedule with exercise, studying and the search for new and meaningful employment while still finding time to game. The result was a sleepy but well-meaning teacher who tried to provide useful and engaging lessons by relying heavily on caffeine.

Once again I would like to have an addiction more interesting than video games but sadly it is just not meant to be. The dangers of sleep deprivation come not just in the form of our energy levels and relationship with coffee though. There is also the impact it can have on our immune system along with a range of neurobehavioral deficits such as lapses of attention, depressed mood and slowed working memory (Banks, Dinges 2007). As you can imagine, the impact this can have on your work life, relationships and ability to drive safely can’t be underestimated.

In fact a number of disasters can be directly linked to sleep deprivation. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of March 24 1989, one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of recent memory, occurred as a result of a crewman falling asleep while steering the ship after working for eighteen hours. The Chernobyl disaster which occurred in the Ukraine in 1986 can also be linked to human error resulting from overworked, tired employees. The World Health Organization predicted four thousand cancer deaths resulting from exposure to radiation and more than three hundred thousand people had to evacuate their homes. These are extreme examples but provide a clear demonstration of how far reaching the effects of a poor sleep cycle can be.

There are of course things we can do to avoid the dangers of such a common and destructive habit. Maintaining a routine before bedtime, avoiding caffeine late in the day and getting regular exercise are all great ways of ensuring we sleep enough. Exercise has been proven to benefit not only our short-term and long-term sleep quality but also our quality of life. (Singh, Clement and Fiatarone 1997).

It’s often a struggle to incorporate exercise and it may seem counter intuitive to tell a sleepy person to go to the gym but I find no fault in the logic. If you feel burned out and unstable then you owe it to yourself to make a change in your life. Sadly for many of us it’s not simple to alter our lifestyles. We have families to support and dreams to accomplish. Stopping just isn’t an option but I’d encourage anyone who feels trapped in this way to search for moments of respite and not underestimate the role of sleep in your life.

The point I’ve been emphasizing throughout is that sleep is a wonderful thing. It’s a very simple point and something I want to remind myself of. It’s not only restorative but it provides us the chance to store and consolidate what we learn throughout our day. It’s a key part of the process that allows us to continually grow and develop. Its importance can’t be undervalued but sadly it often is. So what’s the next step after finishing this article? A tearful reunion with your unappreciated duvet? A promise to cherish it forever and wash it more frequently? That’s my plan... I hope it's yours as well.

English teacher, student of applied linguistics, terrible violinist and mediocre runner

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