27 Nov 2019

Is Sleep the Sacrificial Lamb to Achieving Success?

Posted by Lisa

I’m at the University of Richmond wrapping up my class on “Sleep & College.” This semester has been very rewarding and challenging at the same time. It has taught me more patience and appreciation for what my students go through each day. I met with one of them recently, to review her journals. Seeing that she only accumulated a total of 33 hours of sleep in one week, (which is an average of 4.7 hours a night), I was quite troubled. Her feelings that were recorded in her journal 4 days out of 7, were “very stressed!” She had increased her water daily, per one of my suggestions, but her energy level was also low 4 out of 7 days and exhaustion was more than apparent. I’m seeing this regularly and this is what I call survival mode. Here is my question: How long do you think someone can continue in this state of being? Does this look anything like your schedule or edify how you are feeling? The pressure of school along with the social ilk of today, our young people almost don’t stand a chance against poor health. Furthermore, I’m hearing about this behavior in middle schoolers! They don’t sleep, suffer from anxiety, stomach aches, headaches, depression and a lack of self-worth. This has to stop!

For some of my students, sleep loss started in grade school! I’ve seen firsthand how the students’ culture shapes what they consider to be important. Especially the high-achieving students who buy into the idea that they are what they do! Their productivity does come first and foremost, which stems from their core values or belief system, even if that means depriving themselves of something as valuable as sleep. I see the consequences in their journals they keep for my class. During this 6-week journey, they chart everything from their emotions, exercise, energy level, environment, eating and sleeping habits. It’s tough to see that their well-being is dependent on whether they are getting rewards and achievements. Such as, receiving those A’s, getting that internship, or hopefully landing that dream job and what has been ultimately been sacrificed in order to reach those goals. It’s a shame that society views us individually as a worthwhile human, if and only if; we are successful, powerful, wealthy, or have reached a certain status.

One of my students wrote a paper, that was titled: “I’m Not Allowed to Sleep”. I found this very disturbing. A professor actually told her, “Sleeping will hinder your success.” So, what are we teaching the next generation? The student goes on to say that this notion has pushed her, and many students follow suit with warning her that sleep will interfere with being successful. This dogma has followed this student her whole life. She is not sure she is even qualified to classify herself as sleep deprived, because she does take a lot of naps. Since high school, she has never gone to bed before 11pm. Upon entering college, she can recall on one hand, how many times she felt energetic or ready for her daily tasks after awakening. The pattern is to go to bed around 2 am, and there isn’t a set time when she wakes up. Whether it is 7am or 1pm, her actions are slow, her brain doesn’t work very well, and she says that the world doesn’t seem real (literally because her sight sometimes is unclear). She would tell herself that as long as she got a descent number of hours of sleep, everything would be OK. But reality is proving this to be wrong, and the later she got to bed the more exhausted she would feel the next day. She wonders why she cannot go to bed earlier. Could it be that this pattern was developed back in high school? In high school this young lady would finish up her day around 10:30pm. She would go back to the dorm to do her homework, socialize and ended up going to bed around 12am; then would wake up around 6:30am. What’s interesting is that 12 midnight was once thought of as the middle of the night. Now, it is the time when we begin to wind down.

What does this mean and how can we go to bed earlier? Matthew Walker is a renowned author, professor and sleep expert at University of California, Berkeley that explains how our sleep has evolved. He has studied indigenous Indians and their sleeping habits. These hunter gatherer tribes go to bed around 8-9pm, because this is the time when the earth or land is cooling down. They aren’t influenced by other external factors and naturally wake up with the sun. It’s almost like they are in sync with the rhythms of nature. But we live in the 21st century and the onset of the digital era. The middle of the solar night (12pm) has now become the beginning of night. We are checking Facebook for the last time, sending an email or that last text before we close our eyes. Not only has the duration of our sleep decreased through the influence of modern times, but also when we are sleeping has dramatically shifted too. Light is a key trigger and so is temperature of sleep organization and sleep depth. Both are dependent on our core temperature dropping. But we’re not getting those thermal cues like those mention previously that are more in tuned with nature. Our body’s aren’t getting the signals they need because of thermostatic regulation of our environmental temperatures. With thermal manipulation we can improve insomnia by augmenting the core temperature, like taking a shower which can help with the onset of sleep. “Sleep is the Swiss Army Knife of Health” according to Matthew Walker. He says that no matter what the ailment there is something more than likely in the armament of sleep’s toolbox, that deals with any disease. He has been quoted as saying “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”

My conundrum is how do I communicate the importance of sleep when there is so little reverence placed on this nighttime activity. Another student decided to write his paper on why he thought there was too much emphasis being placed on the importance of sleep. He didn’t see the need, nor did he understand why this class was stressing the significance of a good night’s sleep.  His argument was that there were a lot of successful individuals that have reached the pinnacle of success and accomplished their own idiosyncratic apex within their field of expertise on very little sleep. Many top executives and leaders swear by skipping out on shut eye time. Some might be part of the “sleepless elite” others are just good at masking the effects of exhaustion. Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder and Square CEO has said that in 2011, he was spending eight to ten hours a day at Twitter and eight to ten hours a day at Square. That left him with somewhere around 4-6 hours a night to sleep. In an interview with The New York Times, a tearful Elon Musk acknowledged to the reporter that his near-24/7 work schedule at Tesla for the past year, was not good for his kids, nor the sleep deprivation his overwork was creating. Tom Ford a fashion designer and director, does not attribute his success to talent, but says it’s due to his energy. It must be intense, considering he only sleeps three hours a night! Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, tries to get six hours of sleep but often ends up operating on less.

If we not edifying professional entrepreneurs or the famous icons of our time on how their sacrificial sleep loss attributed to their success, what about parents? What kind of example are they setting for their children? I often see clients, (mostly women), juggling their roles as mother, student, wife, solopreneur, family manager, cook, maid, chauffeur and chief bottle washer. They are breastfeeding their child while typing emails with the other hand. When asked how they do it, the candid response is, “Lots of coffee.” We all have the same 24 hours and the opportunity to use our time wisely. When we place a value on these tasks, we start sacrificing our personal and family time. Prioritizing one task over another ultimately helps us accomplish what is needed and is the key to successfully navigating our days, but at what price? My fear is that sleep will continue to fall to the bottom of our list. Maybe, if we start with understanding the role of sleep and its benefits, we might not only live to be successful but also be healthy enough to enjoy the spoils of our endeavors! “The science is clear. What it tells us is that, there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty.” Eventually you will hit a wall. Hopefully before that happens you will have already set up a system in place and the tools needed to help you avoid burnout or worse, disease.

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  • About Me

    Lisa Healthy Hazelgrove

    Lisa Healthy Hazelgrove

    Wellness Education with a side of Energy

    Health & Wellness Educator that has a passion for educating others on how to create balance in their lives so that the body can heal itself naturally. I have been in the Wellness Industry for 15 years and specialize in nutrition and sleep. My focus is on empowering others to take control of their health and in 2008 I began teaching as a Wellness Instructor at the University of Richmond. My health journey began 15 years ago when I was on 10 prescribed pills a day, had no energy and was 70 lbs heavier. I decided to empower myself and take a proactive approach towards my life and create a wellness home for myself and my family.

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