Rethinking: Sleep

Word Count: 2100 |  Time to Read: 9 minutes

I had my first drink at college.

Of coffee, that is. Before I realized what was happening, I became addicted. Having it with my oatmeal every morning wasn’t enough. A black mug became a familiar companion to my dinnerplate as well.

Like most college students, I readily gulped down this black magic to stave off sleep. I would then spend long nights studying in the library, believing I had seized the day and was sucking all the marrow out of life. Little did I realize, however, I wasn’t only harming myself with sleep deprivation; I was compromising my ability to learn and retain information, my entire motivation for avoiding sleep.

TL;DR

I’ve tracked my sleep for two years. Over that time, I’ve gotten less and less sleep and paid the consequences. Our society glorifies those who get less sleep, but there are serious health risks that accompany sleep deprivation. I tried polyphasic sleep, but saw little results and found it hard to maintain. After a lot of research, I determined that sleeping somewhere around 6.5-7.5 hours consistently was best for me.

My History of Sleep

At the time of this post, I’ve used an Excel spreadsheet to track my sleep for the last 730 nights of my life. From this data, I can tell you any number of facts– my most consistent sleep came during March 2013, when I slept 7.5 hours a night for two weeks straight, and my worst month for sleep came this past June, which directly followed my high school graduation.

On three separate nights that month, I received 1.5, 2, and 2.5 hours of sleep, respectively. (Incidentally, I also recorded the largest amount I’ve ever slept, 11.75 hours, the night after I slept 2 hours.)

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I also track the difficulty I have falling asleep, the quality of sleep, and how many times I awake during the night, which inevitably is often inaccurate. From the past two years of data, I’ve seen an increasingly disturbing trend.

When I started tracking my sleep during the second semester of my junior year of high school, I was getting about eight hours of sleep every night (weekends included) and typically went to bed around 9:30 or earlier.

By the end of my first semester of college, I barely received 6.5 hours of sleep every night, crawling into bed around one in the morning (often falling asleep with no difficulty, a sure sign of sleep deprivation) and averaging a very low quality of sleep at 2.3 (the quality ranges from 1-5, worst to best). Not only was I sleeping less; the little sleep I got wasn’t even restful.

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And with another semester approaching, I planned to take things even further.

Less is More!

In retrospect, most of that first semester was spent in a daze– a result of my sleeping habits, thank you very much. I recall having to continually pinch my leg in order to stay awake during my 9 AM Chemistry class and then stopping myself from nodding off an hour later in European History. Despite the clear side effects of getting such minimal sleep, I wanted to adopt a triphasic sleep cycle during my second semester, getting only 4.5 hours of sleep every night.

Among my generation, sleep is undervalued and underappreciated. We don’t think much of getting six hours of sleep every night during the week because we know we’ll just sleep in on the weekends and make up for our sleep debt. But our bodies don’t work that way (see American Journal of Physiology).

Sure, when sleeping an extremely small amount one night, your body responds with getting extra sleep the following night, but it’s not because there’s some pool of sleep you have to continually replenish. In fact, having a variable sleeping schedule (waking up at nine o’clock on the weekdays and then eleven o’clock on the weekends), can have adverse effects such as low quality of sleep (rings a bell for me), fatigue, and decreased productivity (BioMed Central).

Contributing to this epidemic of sleep deprivation is our glorification of figures who get by with extremely little sleep. True, about 5% of the population has a genetic mutation that allows them to survive on six hours or less every night, but the majority of us can’t sustain such sleeping habits long term (Scientific American). In fact, there’s also research that suggests long-term sleep deprivation can affect how our genes express themselves and decrease our immune response (National Academy of Sciences).

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I’ve certainly joined in on this bandwagon of getting less sleep. On the corkboard of quotes that adorns my bedroom, I’ve included: “Sleep is the cousin of death,” “Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,” “Sleep is for wimps,” “And miles to go before I sleep.”

One of the most-watched motivational videos on YouTube, and one of my personal favorites, includes this quote:

Most of you don’t want success as bad as you want to sleep… If you want to be successful, you have to be willing to give up sleep… You have to be willing to work off of 2 hours, 3 hours of sleep. Somedays, you have to willing to stay up three days in a row… Sleep is for those people who are broke.

The internet readily perpetuates this glorification with articles that spotlight sleep deprived leaders and encourage the masses that five hours of sleep is healthy.

I’ll admit, I’m still envious of those who can get by such little sleep. When a piece in the Wesleyan Argus was published on a student who gets 2-3 hours of sleep every night, I wished I could accomplish such a feat. I thought, like so many others, that if I slept more, then I wasn’t living up to my potential. I was being weak.

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A Failed Experiment

So why did I want to sleep even less? After much contemplation, I decided to go pre-med while still double-majoring in two of the most difficult programs at Wesleyan, Economics and Neuroscience. I would have to take five classes– one more than the general recommendation– during my second semester and every semester thereafter. To ready myself for the additional hours of study I’d have to undertake (goodbye, social life), I would have to do with less sleep.

To ready myself, I began to implement a biphasic sleeping schedule as soon as I got back home for winter break. Biphasic sleeping is a lot less drastic (relative to triphasic), with a core amount of six hours during the night and then a twenty minute nap in the early afternoon. It’s very similar to the siesta that Mexicans often take. (Interesting note: among six countries that were polled, Mexicans slept the most while the Japanese slept the least (National Sleep Foundation).)

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Despite my typical discipline, I struggled to hold myself to the new schedule. My naps were certainly restful but I never fell asleep and often laid there, waiting for the alarm to ring.

Conversely, during the morning, I dreaded hearing my alarm. I often woke up feeling groggy and zombie-like. While a warm shower helped raise my body temperature and wake me up, the sleep debt I felt never waned.

In total, my biphasic sleep experiment worked for about a week. But as old friends began calling and the holidays pressed on, my naps (the key to successful implementation) were pushed later and later in the day. Soon after Christmas, I stopped napping altogether.

It was clear that with so many distractions I wouldn’t be able to sustain polyphasic sleep. That’s not to say, of course, that polyphasic sleep is a hoax.

As stated, Mexicans, as well as many Latin Americans, split their sleep into two separate periods. But beyond certain regions in Asia, few other cultures have adapted such a schedule, beyond a few brave Westerns during this digital age (Night-time and Sleep in Asia and the West).

Famously, Buckminster Fuller followed a polyphasic sleeping schedule, getting by with only two hours of sleep every day, as did Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Telsa, though there’s less proof.

I was surprised to find little science behind the claims of most polyphasic websites. Most reference Dr. Claudio Stampi’s work and do little else to scientifically verify their assertions (Outside Magazine). Much of the success that polyphasic sleepers claim is largely self-reported. When dealing with scientific matters, it’s always important to be wary of such data.

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Dismissing what I just said, I’ll note that I saw minor increases in my productivity during my experiment.

But since I quantify my productivity as the amount of work I’m able to get done within a certain parameter of time (more time spent working = more productive), I can probably chalk up these increases to having extra time to finish work than gaining more brain power or energy. Naturally, the data is furthered complicated by having less time to work in the first place, as the result of social gatherings, for instance.

I didn’t see any significant increases in energy. Since becoming a vegan over three years ago, I think I’ve done all that I can to raise my energy levels, without the addition of stimulants, of course.

I also found that I was having far too many negative thoughts when it came to ‘protecting my naps’, which many guides stressed I do. Whenever people tried to interfere with my naps, I began feeling slightly resentful, despite the fact that it was the holiday season and they were my friends and family. If sleeping polyphasically meant severing my most meaningful social ties, then it definitely wasn’t for me.

A Solution

While on a flight to visit my girlfriend in Washington, D.C., I came upon an article in the in-flight magazine. It propounded the benefits of getting more sleep in a world that, according to the author, tends to be in constant flux of sleep deprivation. Dr. Nate Wilson of University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center was interviewed for the article and perfectly sums up our society’s views on sleep:

The prevailing attitude is, “So, what?” Take sleep seriously and you’re lazy or not sucking the marrow out of life… Sleep is not optional.

For so long I’d seen sleep not as a biological requirement but as a necessary evil that could be mastered with a bit of willpower. Soon after I gave up on my biphasic attempt, I saw the full implications of my sleep deprivation when my first semester grades were reported. They weren’t terrible; just not something I’d be proud of.

I instantly did damage control. What was more to blame? My study habits, which fluctuated throughout the semester, or something far more central– my sleep?

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In wake of my failed experiment with polyphasic sleeping, I resorted back to monophasic sleeping, testing different amounts of sleep every week. Over the past week, I’ve slept 7 hours each night and the previous week, I slept 7.5. This upcoming week, right before my second semester starts, I’ll sleep 6.5 hours every night.

But wait, isn’t 6.5 hours what I was getting last semester anyway? But au contraire my little sleep derpived guinea pig. 6.5 hours was only my average. Considering I slept so much on the weekends, I was probably getting around six hours during weeknights.

This time, I’ll be focusing on improving my sleep hygiene– sleeping a consistent amount every night and going to bed within the same thirty-minute window. In addition, as part of my New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be avoiding all stimulants. The University of Maryland provides other helpful habits here.

I’ve yet to see any conclusive results, but once the data confirms anything significant, I’ll be sure to post the findings on this blog. Keep in mind, however, that this is all self-reported data and might be germane only to my personal physiological makeup.

Afterthought

There is an interesting amount of research to suggest that sleeping too much is almost as hazardous as sleeping too little. Much of this stems from Dr. Daniel F. Kripke’s research in his lab at UC San Diego (UCSD School of Medicine). The more people slept over eight hours, Kripke found, the more likely they were to have lower survival rates. The CDC later confirmed most of his findings in 2010 (The CDC). As noted above, the Japanese sleep a small amount (about seven hours or less each night), yet they still manage to have some of the world’s highest rates of longevity (World Health Organization).

Kripke determined from his studies that the optimal amount came at seven hours of sleep every night. Interesting, Benjamin Franklin, whose daily schedule can be viewed above, regularly slept seven hours.

Perhaps we should take note.

1 Comment

  1. Your personal study goes further, it appears, than some of the studies you’ve cited. Don’t forget the other factors influencing the results of your compiled data, such as not only the Quantity of sleep, as a sole factor, but importantly the Quality.

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